Chimpanzee Language Secrets Exposed

A study conducted by researchers at the University of St Andrews has uncovered the meaning of 66 gestures of chimpanzees, narrowing the gap even further between humans and our closest relative. Arm raises, taps and foot stomps were among the actions observed in chimps that appeared to convey intention towards the recipient. Communication via gesturing has long been known in regard to chimpanzees but the study, published in Current Biology this week, is the first to translate what such gestures actually mean.

Communication of chimpanzees has been studied numerously in the past, with the focus primarily being upon non-intentional communication such as signals for food and danger. Research into ape vocalisation has provided little evidence for intentional communication but this new study suggests that, like humans, chimpanzees produce signals with the intention of changing the recipient’s behaviour for their own benefit.

Of the 66 gestures identified, it was found that they denoted around 15 meanings, including ‘travel with me’, ‘groom me’ and ‘stop that’. Some of the gestures were more ambiguous in their meaning, with the slapping of objects signifying either ‘follow me’ or ‘move closer’. Others such as leaf clipping, an action where the chimp grasps the leaf between its thumb and index finger, pulling it from side to side to rip the leaf blade off,  were only used when the signaller was wishing to acquire sexual attention.

Gestures were identified in meaning specific actions by studying the animal producing the signal. Upon cessation of the signal, the researchers would record what action the recipient had taken to satisfy the signaller, using this as indication to what the signal was implying.

The next step in relation to this research is to determine whether there are any variations in some of the gestures that currently appear to signal several meanings. If subtle changes in such gestures were to be identified it would help to exclude some of the vagueness currently observed in the chimps’ actions.

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Amy Moore

Amy is currently studying for a Masters in Science Communication. Follow her on twitter @_Amy_Moore91

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