Science news: Chimps are mean, sneaky bastards

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

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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.

Photo Credit: 

Mathias Osvath, Current Biology(journal)

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