Chimps Use Tools for Termite Fishing in 38 Different Ways

A new study shows culture, not function, underlies variations in tool use.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

There is no doubt that a wide variety of nonhuman animals (animals) display different local cultural traditions.Chimpanzees are no exception, and a recent essay published in Nature Human Behaviour by renowned primatologist Dr. Christophe Boesch who works at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and 33 colleagues called "Chimpanzee ethnography reveals unexpected cultural diversity" caught my eye because of its large database and because it clearly demonstrates that "termite fishing in wild chimpanzees shows some elements of cumulative cultural diversity."

This essay isn't available online for free, so here's a summary of these exciting new discoveries based on a piece in New Scientist by Rowan Hooper titled "Chimps have local culture differences when it comes to eating termites" which is available.2,3

Animal culture can be defined as information or behaviors shared within a community, which is acquired from conspecifics through some form of social learning. To study termite fishing in different populations of wild chimpanzees, Dr. Boesch and his associates set up camera traps in 39 communities. Termite fishing was observed in 10 of these groups. The researchers analyzed clips from hundreds of videos from which they were able to record the nitty-gritty details of the ways in which chimpanzees in different locations performed this behavior.

Mr. Hooper writes, "...there are 38 different technical elements to the practice, all used in different combinations in each of the chimpanzee communities. Individuals in the same community used more similar techniques compared with chimpanzees from other groups. In other words, there were local cultural differences. 'As in human social conventions, you do it as you see others do,' says [lead researcher] Boesch." 

The observed variations among different chimpanzee groups are fascinating to note. For example, in Korup National Park in Cameroon, chimpanzees "lean on their elbows to insert sticks into termite mounds and then shake the ends of the sticks with their mouths to get the termites to bite the sticks." On the other hand, "chimpanzees in the Wonga Wongué National Park in Gabon lie on their sides and insert their sticks without shaking them. When extracting the sticks, they take the termites directly off them with their mouths."

Another fascinating discovery is that when chimpanzees move from one group to another, they adopt the way in which members of their new group fish for termites. Why this happens remains a mystery. Primatologist Dr. Carel van Schack, who works at the University of Zurich and who didn't partake in the research, wonders if there's some etiquette involved in that the chimpanzees use local methods to better fit in with the members of the group and possibly facilitate social acceptance. He also wonders "whether the chimps feel pressure to conform or if there are punishments or sanctions for nonconformity." Clearly, more research is needed to answer these intriguing questions.

All in all, the significance of this research project can't be overestimated. Dr. van Schack says, “This paper is an absolute milestone in ‘culture in nature’ research." I agree and look forward to further discussions about local customs and cultural traditions in a wide range of nonhuman animals. 

Human activities are robbing chimpanzees of behavioral diversity

"My hope is that improving our understanding about the rich behavioural, as well as genetic, diversity of our planet, which includes unique cultural ways of behaving, may help to highlight the need to adjust our attitudes and perceptions of wildlife and preserve this richness." —Cetacean expert, Philippa Brakes  

Learning about local cultural traditions in nonhumans is essential not only for accumulating knowledge about the behavior of these animals, but also for preserving and respecting animal cultures. Among chimpanzees, humans erode behavioral diversity. One study noted, "in areas with a greater human footprint, the chimps perform fewer cultural behaviors. Each behavior was 88 percent less likely to occur in these human-dominated landscapes."

These data should compel everyone — researchers and non-researchers alike — to tread lightly, if at all, into the lives of wild animals. Even our mere presence — just simply "being there" — can influence the behavior of a wide variety of wild animals, and we need to know if we're affecting them in unknown, and often subtle, but very important ways. 

Stay tuned for further discussion of nonhuman animal cultures. Learning more about local cultural traditions is a hot and very exciting and important area of comparative research. The more we know about the fine details of local behavioral customs, the better we will be able to preserve biodiversity — both within and between species — on our magnificent planet. 



1) A wide array of popular essays can be seen here and scholarly articles can be seen here

2) The abstract for the research essay reads: Human ethnographic knowledge covers hundreds of societies, whereas chimpanzee ethnography encompasses at most 15 communities. Using termite fishing as a window into the richness of chimpanzee cultural diversity, we address a potential sampling bias with 39 additional communities across Africa. Previously, termite fishing was known from eight locations with two distinguishable techniques observed in only two communities. Here, we add nine termite-fishing communities not studied before, revealing 38 different technical elements, as well as community-specific combinations of three to seven elements. Thirty of those were not ecologically constrained, permitting the investigation of chimpanzee termite-fishing culture. The number and combination of elements shared among individuals were more similar within communities than between them, thus supporting community-majority conformity via social imitation. The variation in community-specific combinations of elements parallels cultural diversity in human greeting norms or chopstick etiquette. We suggest that termite fishing in wild chimpanzees shows some elements of cumulative cultural diversity.

3) The title for Mr. Hooper's New Scientist essay in their June 6, 2020 print edition is "Chimps adapt to fit in with the local dining culture."

Bekoff, Marc. New Chimpanzee Culture Discovered, Others Lost Due to Humans. (Eastern chimpanzees living in Democratic Republic of Congo display new tool kit, featuring four different kinds of tools.)

_____. Conservation Depends on Preserving Animal Cultures. (Understanding the rich social lives of animals benefits conservation efforts. Many aspects of cetacean culture are discussed in this piece.)

_____. The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins: We Are Not Alone

_____ and Jessica Pierce. The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. Beacon Press, 2017. 

Brakes, Philippa et al. Animal cultures matter for conservation. Science, March 8, 2019. 

Kühl, Hjalmar et al. Human impact erodes chimpanzee behavioral diversity. Science, March 29, 2019. The abstract for this important study reads: "Chimpanzees possess a large number of behavioral and cultural traits among nonhuman species. The 'disturbance hypothesis' predicts that human impact depletes resources and disrupts social learning processes necessary for behavioral and cultural transmission. We used a dataset of 144 chimpanzee communities, with information on 31 behaviors, to show that chimpanzees inhabiting areas with high human impact have a mean probability of occurrence reduced by 88 percent, across all behaviors, compared to low-impact areas. This behavioral diversity loss was evident irrespective of the grouping or categorization of behaviors. Therefore, human impact may not only be associated with the loss of populations and genetic diversity but also affects how animals behave. Our results support the view that 'culturally significant units' should be integrated into wildlife conservation."

Safina, Carl. Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace. Henry Holt and Co., 2020.