Chimps Use Gestures When Searching For Food
January 18, 2014

Researchers Find Chimps Can Use Gestures To Locate Hidden Food

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Chimpanzees are able to communicate with gestures to search for a piece of food, according to a study appearing in the January 16 edition of the journal Nature Communications.

Dr. Charles Menzel of the Georgia State University Language Research Center and colleagues examined a pair of language-trained chimps as they communicated with a human researcher in an attempt to locate food. They found “compelling evidence” that the creatures were able to use gestures to coordinate their actions when it comes to goal-completion related tasks, the researchers said.

Dr. Menzel and his colleagues developed a task which required the chimps and the human to practice coordination in order to locate a piece of food that had been hidden in a large outdoor area. The investigator did not know the location of the hidden food, and the two chimps used gestures to guide him/her to its location.

The experimental design “allows the chimpanzees to communicate information in the manner of their choosing, but also requires them to initiate and to persist in communication,” Dr. Menzel said. The study authors compared the “warmer/colder” game played by children where one guides another to a hidden object.

“The chimpanzees used gestures to recruit the assistance of an otherwise uninformed person and to direct the person to hidden objects 10 or more meters away,” he added. “The findings illustrate the high level of intentionality chimpanzees are capable of, including their use of directional gestures. This study adds to our understanding of how well chimpanzees can remember and communicate about their environment.”

Dr. Anna Roberts of the University of Chester’s Department of Psychology said that the findings were important, because the use of gestures in order to coordinate cooperative activities such as locating food could have played a role in the formation of language.

“Previous findings in both wild and captive chimpanzees have indicated flexibility in their gestural production,” added Dr. Sarah-Jane Vick, a psychology lecturer at the University of Stirling., “but the more complex coordination task used here demonstrates the considerable cognitive abilities that underpin chimpanzee communication.”

The research was sponsored by the Leakey Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the British Academy, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and the University of Stirling.