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Chimps Fashion Hand-Made Tools To Get Honey From Beehives

March 19, 2009

Scientists in the Republic of Congo used cameras to capture how chimpanzees use “tools” to raid the honey from beehives, BBC News reported.

The chimpanzees were able to craft large clubs from branches to beat the beehives until they broke apart, while some chimps would also use a “toolkit” of different wooden tools to secure the honey, researchers said.

“The nutritional returns don’t seem to be that great. But their excitement when they’ve succeeded is incredible, you can see how much they are enjoying tasting the honey,” said Crickette Sanz, from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Primatologists have done studies in the past that revealed how the great apes can fashion sticks to open nests, but researchers only recently discovered how prevalent the practice was amongst chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle in the Congo Basin.

“It seems these chimps in central Africa have developed more sophisticated techniques for getting at the honey than populations in eastern and western Africa – maybe it is some kind of regional feature,” said Sanz.

The chimps in the area have targeted the hives of stingless bees that reside in that part of the country.

However, Sanz told the BBC that the nests are tough to get into because they are often at the top of the forest canopy, at the end of a branch.

“The chimps will go up there and hang at all sorts of precarious angles to get to the honey, using these clubs in any way that they can to access it,” he said.

Sanz reported that some chimps would pound over 1,000 times to get to the honey.

“Sometimes it could take several hours – they would start in the morning, then take some rests, and then finish up in the afternoon. It is quite physically challenging.”

The study also revealed that the Congo chimps’ tool use was more sophisticated than primatologists previously thought.

“One of the most exciting aspects is that they are using multiple tools to access the honey that is in these hives. They have a tool kit ready when they go for honey, ” said David Morgan, a co-author on the study from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Once the chimps had spotted and then crafted a suitable club from a branch, by pulling off unwanted twigs and leaves with their teeth or hands, they would set it aside for later use, he said.

The researchers also reported last week similar behavior in the Goualougo Triangle chimps that crafted fishing rods with a brush-tipped end to fish for termites.

Researchers believe there is still much to learn about tool use in these chimps but are worried about their uncertain future, as the primates and their habitat are currently under threat.

“These beehives are found in tree species that are exploited for logging, so this could be a direct affect we have on their behavior, their feeding and their conservations,” said Morgan.

The full study was printed in the International Journal of Primatology.

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