Chimps show skill in termite fishing

Video cameras recording activity at six termite nests in a central-African forest have revealed how local chimpanzees snag the insects for snacks. Tapes from a recent 6-month period show chimps making and wielding one set of termite-fishing tools at aboveground nests and a different type at subterranean nests.

GONE FISHING. Mother chimp holds termite-fishing probe in her mouth as she and her child gaze toward a video camera recording their behavior in a central-African forest. Goualougo Chimpanzee Project

These chimps, residents of the Republic of Congo’s Goualougo Triangle, use termite-extracting tools and techniques that differ from those reported for chimps in eastern and western Africa, according to the new study, led by Crickette Sanz of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The Congo chimps’ tool use represents a cultural behavior, the researchers conclude in the November American Naturalist.

Unattended cameras, which had never been used to study chimps, focused on termite nests frequented by a 54-member Congo-chimp community. At dirt mounds made by termites, adult chimps push a short twig or branch into the soil at various spots to create narrow tunnels. They then insert flexible stems of a particular local plant into the tunnels and swiftly pull them out. Termites crawling on these “fishing probes” are quickly scooped up by hand or mouth, the researchers note. To make the stems into more-effective termite catchers, chimps often fray the forward ends of these probes with their teeth.

At subterranean nests, the chimps use long sticks to dig tunnels into the ground before inserting fishing probes.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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