Well-tooled apes
The fascinating article “Aping the Stone Age” (SN: 11/21/09, p. 24) led me to wonder whether researchers who work with chimps or other higher apes have ever introduced them to the modern tools used by humans, such as saws, axes, hammers or pliers. If so, it would be interesting to know whether the apes could grasp the tools’ purposes, employ them productively and/or demonstrate their utility to ape kin.
Jack J. Friedman, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Andrew Whiten of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland replies: An interesting question. Some studies have involved giving apes humanlike tools, as when Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and colleagues tested whether one chimpanzee could request the correct tool from another chimpanzee to open one of several boxes and share the food contents (as Savage-Rumbaugh describes in her book Ape Language, Columbia, 1986). However, these were specially designed tools, not regular human tools. Anecdotally, I know of chimpanzees who see a lot of human behavior, who on managing to purloin something like a screwdriver will attempt to undo the screws holding their cage together — which may partly explain the limits on this kind of inquiry! This implies that apes will appreciate the utility of certain tools from watching humans, consistent with what we have shown of apes’ ability to learn particular forms of tool use from others. See, for example, A. Whiten et al., Transmission of multiple traditions within and between chimpanzee groups,”Current Biology, 2007.

Speedy issues
I enjoyed Laura Beil’s piece “Breaking the Speed Limit” (SN: 12/5/09, p. 26) and learned some fascinating things. But as a bicyclist since the 1950s, I would like to point out a shortcoming in her comparison of [Oscar] Pistorius’ running with a cyclist: When the cyclist gears down, he pedals faster with less force without losing speed. Pistorius steps faster with less force than other runners to maintain the same speed, like a cyclist gearing down. Saying that switching to a lower gear permits a rider to pedal less without losing speed is simply wrong.
Conrad F. Nuthmann, Deland, Fla.

As an old relay anchor, I’d expect Usain Bolt’s top speed to be even faster on the home stretch of a 200-meter race or the back stretch of the 400. Top running speed depends more on length of stride and coordination than on “pounding the pavement,” and you can’t “hit your stride” in a race as short as 100 meters.

Karl Staubach , Benicia, Calif.

From the Nature Index

Paid Content