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Apes do the darndest things

Chimps display hunting, foraging skills that may have served early hominids well

2:22pm, September 9, 2015
chimps in trees

FIRED UP APES  Chimps hunt and forage with tools and can predict how wildfires will move. Whether these primates are an appropriate model for ancient hominid behavior is up for debate.  

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Wildfires dart through tall grass and tree stands at Fongoli, Senegal, during a roughly seven-month dry season. Chimpanzees living in this West African savanna coolly monitor the approaching fires from perches in trees or from ravines. As flames near, the apes retreat just enough to stay safe, sometimes climbing a tree or scurrying into nearby woods.

Because they predict how and where wildfires will move, Fongoli chimps don’t get burned, says anthropologist Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University in Ames. It’s not a simple task — flame height, fire intensity, wind direction and other factors demand consideration.

Researchers have long used chimp behavior as a window on how ancient hominids lived. Grasping how fire behaves under different conditions represents a mental stepping stone that human ancestors must have reached before learning to control and start fires, Pruetz and Thomas LaDuke of East Stroudsburg

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