Science news: Chimps are mean, sneaky bastards

Swedish zoo chimp hoards, then hides rocks to throw at surprised visitors

Three years ago a middle-aged chimp named Santino ruined forever the image of proto-humans in the minds of noble-savage-addicted wildlife apologists, fans of Disney's Tarzan and ecology hobbyists more simpatico with Captain Planet than Planet of the Apes.

Santino, a 34-year-old male chimp became famous in 2009 when a primatologist/zookeeper reported on his habit of spending every morning collecting stones and bits of construction material into five neat piles, and spending the afternoon throwing stones at visitors.

Now he's back in the news not for throwing stones, but for setting traps for visitors who always managed to be in the wrong spot or too far away to be properly beaned if they knew what Santino was up to.

It wasn’t the throwing that got everyone's attention. Throwing things (sticks, stones, feces) is typical behavior for alpha males trying to warn strangers away from his territory, according to primatologists.

That's one of the reasons chimp pens tent to be enclosed by poop-retardant glass or with plenty of space between the spots tourists gather to ogle and those in which the chimps hunker to gather ammunition.

Besides, Santino's arm was not that good. His fastball never cracked 90 mph; he never managed to get a rock into the strike zone or to hit a bystander with any real authority.

Except for primatologists studying cognition and the ability to imagine a contextually detached future, most people not planning to come within a stone's throw of the chimp enclosure at Sweden's Furuvik Zoo pretty much forgot about Santino.

That may have been his plan.

Santino is back this week, in a paper written by primatologist/neuroscientists Mathias Osvath and Elin Karvonen, who document a new twist on the Santino legend:

The 34-year-old chimp, who has been throwing rocks at visitors almost daily since 1997, has switched strategies. Actually he came up with a strategy, which is much better from a primatolotist's point of view.

The chimp plots his revenge

Now, rather than just collecting stones now and throwing them later, Santino collects the stones, then hides them in piles of hay he made for the purpose behind rocks or other natural hiding places within the compound.

Normally, when visitors showed up and needed to be intimidated into going away, Santino began his exorcism with the same kind of chest-beating, tooth-baring, ear-splitting-screech-making displays of aggression familiar to anyone who ever spent quality time with the Discovery Channel or Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.

With the piles of rocks hidden and deception in the wind, however, Santino didn't have to howl or scream.

Instead he suppressed the initial portion of his intimidation display in order to keep visitors from realizing they'd been suckered until it was too late.

At some point, when a particularly threatening-looking toddler or grandmother moved into position downrange, Santino would rush to his cache of ammo, whip aside the hay or other concealment and fire away at the intruders before they could back out of range.

He still couldn't hit anyone, which must have disappointed Santino but didn't make the least difference to scientists observing him.

While he'd painfully blown his chance to finally bean a human, Santino had displayed a behavior completely new to those studying chimpanzee behavior (in zoos):

Santino was able not only to model and predict the behavior of others who weren't there at the time. He was able to imagine a new set of actions for himself in a situation that had never happened in quite the same way before, as opposed to events that happened regularly in the past.

It's not proof chimps have imagination and the ability to plan for the future. It is a good indication some chimps and possibly other animals might be able to visualize the future, not simply react to the present.

That's an ability far more cognitively sophisticated than using simple tools, which was the the rule-of-thumb anthropologists used until bird-watchers told them some really stupid birds would have qualified as "intelligent" for using a stick to dig grubs out of rotten logs.

Santino's example is more than just evidence that chimps are smarter than we thought.

Our surprise at his ability to hide a rock highlights a bias in our own thinking allows us to feel special by thinking of other species as wetware automatons capable only of fumbling their way through a few instinctive behaviors or learn a few of ours by rote.

In fact, chimps can be complete bastards, and not just because Santino wants to lure helpless women and children into range of his terrible pitching.

A 2010 study titled Chimpanzees Extract Social Information from Agonistic Screams, for example documents chimps' ability to extract useful information about social situations that are out of their sight. According to the paper, one chimp can listen to the screams of a another chimp being abused by a larger member of the troupe, or eaten by a predator, and figure exactly what the fight is about or the social context the victimized chimp had been enjoying when something bigger came along to eat it.

Another, from 2009, documents the willingness of chimps to help other chimps when they're asked to do so.

That open-mindedness prompted a lot of discussion about the existence and quality of altruism in chimpanzees. Intensifying the discussion were studies published around the same time that documented budding altruistic tendencies in human toddlers.

A third, using 18 separate incidents in which chimps big enough and formidable enough to be able to do what they want chose to adopt the infant or toddler offspring of another member of the troupe, after he or she died.

Helping another chimp to move, or go to a relative's community theater presentation when neither of you wants to see is definitely altruistic behavior. It doesn't really compare to the willingness to adopt a child who will need to be fed and cared for and eventually sent to chimp college, though.

That's a whole different level of emotional and cognitive complexity – levels far beyond those we usually give animals credit for being able to reach.

Moral of the story: Count the grubs before you pick a teacher; and never forget where you hide your beaning rocks

Of course, chimps emulate human approaches to thought and decision-making in other ways, too.

Given the chance to watch two chimps solve the same food-gathering problem in different ways, most chimps automatically copy the older, larger chimp with higher social status rather than seeing which technique is more effective and copying that.

Which, if you think about it, makes chimps look dumber than we thought, in the same way plotting a stone-throwing trap made one look smarter.

Both also make us look stupid for labeling animals, machines or other humans as Stupid or Smart or Possessing Executive Hair based on one or two largely irrelevant indicators and behaving as if our judgments were true, rather than re-evaluating them once in a while based on more realistic criteria. We don't judge two potential leaders, or two differing techniques according to which actually works better.

Looks and confidence may give the grubs on Executive Hair Chimp's plate an air of culinary success.

Most of us would be a lot better off looking closely enough to figure out we'd be better fed by copying the wild-haired ranter who spends half his time plotting ways to hit zoo visitors with a rock and the other half getting fat on grubs he outsmarted in ways Executive Hair Chimp could never imagine.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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