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Chimpanzee cooperators

'We've never seen this level of understanding during cooperation in any other animals except humans,' says Melis. Cooperation happens all the time in the animal kingdom. A pride of lions cooperates to hunt down a gazelle. A herd of elephants band together to protect themselves from predators. But there may not be much thinking going on behind this kind of cooperation. It could be that by each animal wanting the same thing and working at the same time, success happens by accident.

In Melis' study which took place at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda, not only did chimpanzees understand when they needed help, they understood their role, their partner's role, and chose who they wanted to work with.

To reach a food tray, the chimpanzees had to pull two ends of a rope which dragged the tray towards them. Both rope ends had to be pulled at the same time or the rope was simply pulled out. Melis found that the chimpanzees only let a partner into the room (by opening their door) when the rope ends were too far apart to pull them on their own.

'Not only did they need to know when they needed help, they had to go out and get it.' Melis says. 'Then they had to wait until their partner came in and pull on the rope at the same time. The chimps really had to understand why they needed their partner.'

Just like people, there were better cooperators than others. Mawa, the dominant chimpanzee, was not a very good cooperator. He didn't wait for his partner and often pulled the rope from the tray. Bwambale, on the other hand, was a great cooperator. He always waited for his partner and was nearly always successful in getting the food. At first, the chimpanzees chose Mawa and Bwambale equally, but when the chimpanzees learned what a hopeless cooperator Mawa was, most chose Bwambale on the next trial.

Melis was excited by the results. 'This is the first study that lets chimps choose who they want to cooperate with. We found that chimp
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Contact: Alicia P. Melis
melis@eva.mpg.de
49-341-355-0425
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
2-Mar-2006


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