March 4, 2009

Chimps Develop Hand-Crafted Tools To Collect Termites

Scientists working in the Republic of Congo may have discovered why some chimpanzees are so good at catching termites, BBC News reported.

A team discovered that the chimps are crafting brush-tipped "fishing rods" to scoop the insects out of their nests and they've even filmed the wild primates using their teeth to fashion the tools.

The frayed ends helped the chimpanzees collect more termites, researchers wrote in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

"They have invented a way to improve their termite-fishing technique," said lead researcher Crickette Sanz, from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Studies in the past have suggested that wild chimpanzees use brush-tipped tools to fish for termites, but until now it has been unclear whether this was a specially crafted design feature or whether the frayed edges were a by-product of repeated tool use.

Researchers set up remote cameras to find out whether it was intentional or not.

"We found that in the Goualougo Triangle in the Republic of Congo, the chimpanzees were modifying their termite-fishing tools with a special brush tip," Sanz told BBC News.

The chimps were observed using stems from the Marantaceae plant with plucked off leaves to make their rods.

Sanz said they would then pull the herb stems through their teeth, which were partially closed, to make the brush.

"They also attended to the brush by sometimes pulling apart the fibers to make them better at gathering the termites," he added.

Further research revealed that a stem with a frayed tip collected 10 times more termites than a pointed probe.

Sanz said the chimps seem to understand the function of the tool and its importance in gathering termites.

The researchers wrote that they've only seen this type of behavior in chimps in the Goualougo Triangle, suggesting the absence of such advancement in populations in eastern and western Africa mean it is not an innate skill found in all chimpanzees.

The team believes the Goualougo primates are learning the crafting techniques from other chimps.

Now experts hope to find out if other chimps in the region are creating other kinds of tools.

"Large areas of central Africa have been largely unstudied and so there are many populations that could have examples of complex tool use that we just do not know about," said Sanz, adding that further research might be hampered since the species is under threat.

Sanz said just as researchers are learning more about these exciting new complex tool behaviors, the chimps that are showing them that these behaviors are under danger from logging, poaching and Ebola.

"There is a lot we need to do to conserve the chimps in the Congo Basin."


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