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Do chimps deliberately warn one another of danger?

Posted on 21 October 2013

An investigation led by researchers in the Department has revealed surprising similarities between human and chimpanzee communication.

Chimpanzee fearful of the snake, Bugando Forest, Uganda

When we see something scary happening we might shout “look out!” or we might just scream in shock and fear. In the second case, perhaps the sound we make is only a reflection of our own emotional state, but in the first case, we are clearly trying to warn someone else about the danger. Are humans unique in this ability to deliberately warn others of danger, with all that it implies about the way we understand other people and the threats they face?

A new study led by Dr Katie Slocombe and Dr Anne Schel suggests that when chimpanzees make alarm calls they do so to warn others of danger, rather merely expressing fear. Working in the Budongo Forest Reserve Uganda, they analysed the responses of groups of wild chimps to a realistic, moving model python. When chimps see a snake - they make characteristic sounds which function as alarm calls. But are intentionally warning one another, or just expressing fear? A key observation was that the chimps looked around at other members of the group while making alarm calls and continued calling until all the others were safe.

Dr Slocombe said: “These behaviours indicate that these alarm calls were produced intentionally to warn others of danger and thus the study shows a key similarity in the mechanisms involved in the production of chimpanzee vocalisations and human language”.

The research was funded by the BBSRC and also involved researchers from Budongo Conservation Field Station, the University of Zurich, Harvard University, the University of Neuchâtel, and the University of St Andrews.

Read more in the New Scientist

Read the full journal article at PLoS Biology