Primates Show Teamwork Is Not Just A Human Trait
March 19, 2013

Primates Show Teamwork Is Not Just A Human Trait

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Teamwork has resulted in almost every one of man´s greatest achievements, from walking on the moon to sequencing the human genome. In a new study from the journal Biology Letters, a pair of scientists have found teamwork could have its origins in our primate relatives, namely chimpanzees.

The two researchers from Warwick Business School in the UK and the Max Planck Institute in Germany found chimpanzees can work together using simple tools to get food out of a specially designed box.

"We want to find out where humans' ability to cooperate and work together has come from and whether it is unique to us,” said study co-author Alicia Melis, a behavioral science professor at Warwick.

"Many animal species cooperate to achieve mutually beneficial goals like defending their territories or hunting prey,” she said. “However, the level of intentional coordination underlying these group actions is often unclear, and success could be due to independent but simultaneous actions towards the same goal.

"This study provides the first evidence that one of our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, not only intentionally coordinate actions with each other but that they even understand the necessity to help a partner performing her role in order to achieve the common goal,” Melis said.

In the study, Melis and her colleague Michael Tomasello, from the Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology at the Max Planck Institute, examined the behavior of 12 chimps at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary near Nanyuki, Kenya.

The primates were separated into pairs with one at each end of a sealed plastic box. To get the grapes within the box, the chimpanzee at one end had to push the grapes onto a platform using a rake-like tool. The chimpanzee at the other end could then insert a thick stick through a hole to tilt the platform, making the grapes fall to the floor where the teammates could pick them up to eat.

At the outset, one chimpanzee was given both tools, forcing the primate to realize and decide which tool to pass to its partner. Ten out of the 12 chimpanzees figured out they had to give one of the tools to the other chimp and in 73 percent of the trials the first chimpanzees chose the correct tool.

"There were great individual differences regarding how quickly they started transferring tools to their partner,” Melis said. “However, after transferring a tool once, they subsequently transferred tools in 97 percent of the trials and successfully worked together to get the grapes in 86 percent of the trials.

"This study provides the first evidence that chimpanzees can pay attention to the partner's actions in a collaborative task, and shows they know their partner not only has to be there but perform a specific role if they are to succeed,” she added. “It shows they can work strategically together just like humans do, working out that they not only need to work together but what roles each chimpanzee has to do in order to succeed.”

"Although chimpanzees are generally very competitive when trying to gain access to food and would rather work alone and monopolize all the food rewards, this study shows that they are willing and able to strategically support the partner performing their role when their own success is dependent on the partner's,” Melis said.