Young chimpanzees show sex differences in learning

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL--Female and male chimps both learn from their mothers how to insert sticks into termite mounds and pull out a tasty meal of insects, but females learn earlier, spend more time at it and tend to catch more termites with each try, according to a University of Minnesota study to be published in the journal Nature April 15. The distinct sex differences in learning this skill are akin to differences between young girls and boys as they learn fine motor skills like writing, the researchers said. The authors said the study, which was done at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, has yielded the first systematic evidence of a difference between the sexes in the learning or imitation of a tool-use technique in wild chimpanzees, and it implies that sex-based learning differences have an ancient origin.

"This finding is a heads up to researchers studying the learning of relatively complex skills that they should take sex into account," said Elizabeth Lonsdorf, who headed the study as a graduate student at the university and is now director of field conservation at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. While young females perfected the art of termite fishing, young males spent more time playing and swinging around--behaviors that may help them in typically male adult activities like hunting and struggling for dominance, even though they see little of these activities while they are with their mothers. Mothers showed no preference for allowing either male or female offspring to observe them, yet sons and daughters did different things. And it makes perfect sense for chimps.

"The availability of animal protein is limited for chimpanzees. They can fish for termites or hunt colobus monkeys," explained Lonsdorf. "Mature males often hunt monkeys up in the trees, but females are almost always either pregnant or burdened with a clinging infant. This makes hunting difficult. But termites are a rich source of protein and fat. Females can fish for termites an

Contact: Deane Morrison
University of Minnesota

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