chimp gesture dictionary
July 5, 2014

Researchers Create Glossary Of Gestures Used By Wild Chimpanzees

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

For the first time, scientists from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have decoded the meaning behind the various gestures that chimpanzees use to communicate with one another, observing more than 80 wild Ugandan primates in order to compile a glossary of their hand and body movements.

Writing in the July 2 edition of the journal Current Biology, St. Andrews primatologists Dr. Catherine Hobaiter and Professor Richard Byrne explained that they monitored wild chimpanzees in the rainforests of the African nation and discovered that the creatures use a total of 66 gestures to intentionally communicate 19 different and unique meanings.

According to Tom Brooks-Pollock of The Telegraph, among the gestures detected by Hobaiter and Byrne included tapping another chimp in order to ask them to stop doing something, flirting by nibbling on a leaf, making a flinging motion with the hand to ask another chimp to move away, and raising an arm in order to ask for an object.

The study authors said their findings confirm the long-held notion that the creatures most closely related to humans biologically truly do have a purpose when they communicate with each other. While experts had known that they used gestures to communicate, this is the first study to successfully figure out what they are saying.

Hobaiter told BBC News that these gestures were the only form of intentional communication ever recorded by non-human animals, making people and chimps the only creatures with a system of communication through which they can deliberately send messages to one another.

“Apes target their gestures to particular individuals, choosing appropriate gestures according to whether the other is looking or not,” Byrne explained in a statement. “It has been known for over 30 years that chimpanzees communicate in this way, but oddly enough nobody has attempted to answer the obvious question, what are these apes actually trying to ‘say’?”

In an attempt to solve this mystery, he and Hobaiter researched the behavior of chimpanzees living in the Budongo Forest of Uganda. They used video to record communicative interactions, extracting over 4,500 different instances of gesturing and focusing mostly on non-playful uses, since gestures during play might not be used with their actual meanings. In all, they were able to discern the meanings for most of the 66 gestures used by chimpanzees.

“Just as with human words, some gestures have several senses, but importantly the meanings of chimpanzee gestures are the same irrespective of who uses them. Chimpanzees may use more than one gesture for the same purpose – especially in social negotiations, where the final outcome may be a matter of some give and take,” said Hobaiter, explaining that the next step will be to probe possible variations in gesture meanings.

“Now that the basic chimpanzee gesture ‘dictionary’ is known, we can start to tackle other interesting questions,” she added. “Do some gestures have very general meanings, where their intended sense is understood from the context? Or do subtle variations in how a gesture is made determine which sense was meant?”


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