Friday, September 30, 2005

Wild gorillas recorded using tools for first time

Wow, who wrote that title, it makes the whole thing seem much more ground-breaking than it really is. Gorillas have been recorded (i.e. pen and paper) using tools in the past, they just haven't been videoed doing it.
One of my favourite anecdotes about ape tool use is the story one of my profs told in a primatology class I took. There was a grad student who decided to study primate tool use by following around a mother chimp as she taught her baby to termite fish. It's tough work, you have to get just the right blade of grass. Then you have to find a good straight hole into the termite mound and stick the grass in, wiggle it around till some termites grab hold of it and then drag the grass back through the windy tunnels of the termite mound without knocking off all the termites. Then get them into your mouth before they fall on the ground and get away. When young chimps start out doing this, they usually don't get enough nutrition from it to make it worth their while, but eventually they become very efficient with it. That was what happened in this case, after something like 9 months the baby chimp was getting a pretty decent amount of nutrition from each termite fishing trip, but the grad student had only caught two or three termites in total even though he was spending the exact same amount of time practicing as the baby chimp did. Can you imagine writing your grad thesis and presenting it with the results a young chimp can do this thing better than I can!? It definitely puts a new spin on telling someone a chimp could do their job.
Friday, September 30, 2005 Posted: 1354 GMT (2154 HKT)
(AP) -- For the first time, biologists have documented gorillas in the wild using simple tools, such as poking a stick in a swampy pool of water to check its depth.

Until now, scientists had seen gorillas use tools only in captivity. Among the great apes, tool use in the wild was thought to be a survival skill reserved for smaller chimpanzees and orangutans.

The research in the Republic of Congo's rainforests was led by Thomas Breuer of the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, which released details of his study. Breuer is in Africa and was not immediately available for an interview.

"This is a truly astounding discovery," he said in a statement. "Tool usage in wild apes provides us with valuable insights into the evolution of our own species and the abilities of other species."

Other scientists said the observations were important, but not surprising.

Breuer's observations were made late last year in a marshy clearing called Mbeli Baia located in Nouabal De-Ndoki National Park where monitoring has been ongoing since February 1995.

The first instance was observed last October when a female gorilla (nicknamed Leah by scientists) attempted to wade through a pool of water created by elephants, but found herself waist deep after only a few steps. Climbing out of the pool, she retrieved a branch from a dead tree and used the stick to test the depth of the water.

In November, a second female gorilla (named Efi) used a detached tree trunk to support herself with one hand while digging for herbs with the other hand. She also used the tree trunk as a bridge to cross a muddy patch of ground.

Details of the findings are being published in the online journal PLoS (Public Library of Science) Biology. Video of the gorillas will be broadcast Saturday on the PBS program "Wild Chronicles."

Fairly or not, gorillas have been considered less capable than other great apes, in part because they have not been as extensively studied.

Chimps, for example, have been continuously observed in the field for 40 years since Jane Goodall launched her landmark study at Gombe Stream in Tanzania. They have become stars of television documentaries and glossy magazine articles, displaying their extensive use of rocks to break open hard-shelled nuts and sticks to "fish" termites from mounds.

In contrast, gorillas are much larger, stronger and slower.

"Chimps are portrayed as the super-ape and gorillas are the big brutes in the forest," said Richard Carroll, a primate expert and director of the Africa program at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C. He has conducted gorilla field studies since 1980. He did not contribute to Breuer's report.

"Gorillas are very intelligent, but they don't have to be as delicate as chimps -- they can just smash open the termite nest," said Carroll, who a decade ago reported observing gorillas using sticks to ward off attacking leopards.

"New studies like this show that especially lowland gorillas are very chimplike in their abilities," he said.

Carroll said the new study was made possible by the establishment of protected parks in Congo by agreements between conservation groups, international agencies and the government. The populations of gorillas and other great apes are severely imperiled by logging, hunting and outbreaks of the Ebola virus. And, civil war in Congo has made field science dangerous for years.

"It's a tribute to conservation efforts that allow people to sit and observe and not be in fear of their lives," he said.


paul said...

on the sidebar at the cnn original someone talks about how surprised they are at how chimp-like gorillas are. sigh...

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.