Chimpanzees Share Experiences With Each Other ‘Just Because’–A Trait Once Thought to Be Only Human

When you’re out with your friends, how often do you want to share an experience by saying something like, ‘Wow, look at that’?

Now we know that chimpanzees do this too—a behavior once thought unique to humans.

Scientists recently observed a young chimp nagging its mom for attention for the sole purpose of showing her a leaf—for no reason other than to say something like, “Look, isn’t this a cool leaf?”

In their study, the scientists called it “declarative referential gesturing,” showing something for the sake that another chimp can see it, and no more. They observed this in a mother-daughter pairing at the Ngobo Chimp Community at Kibale National Park in Uganda.

“Critically, she didn’t seem to want her mom to do anything with the leaf. … She seems to be showing it just for the sake of showing it. It’s like, ‘look, look, this is cool, isn’t it?’ And that is very humanlike and something that we thought was fairly unique to our species,” study coauthor Katie Slocombe, a professor of psychology at the University of York in the United Kingdom.

They contrasted this incident with the leaf to 84 other events all centered around the use of leaves, which the scientists detail are often the focus of groomers.

Chimps tend to pluck leaves from trees while grooming each other, which garners a lot of attention in the community. The generally-accepted belief is that since it happens during inter-indivudal grooming, they use the leaf as a sort of petri-dish to inspect the parasites they pull off each other.

Always however, with the study of our closest relatives, the video footage is the really convicncing argument. The video of daughter Fiona plucking a leaf and showing it to her mother Sutherland is a gesture we have all seen a hundred million times in the age of social media—a youth passing a phone infront of another’s face to direct their attention towards it.

“When Fiona was doing this, (Sutherland) didn’t really seem interested; she wasn’t watching and wasn’t giving her any attention. Fiona is then showing her the leaf to say, ‘look at it,’” Slocombe said.

“She is really persistent with trying to get her mom to look at it, and it’s only when her mom really visibly dropped her whole head to orient to the leaf that (Fiona) then seems satisfied.”

The study is the first recorded observation of this behavior in the wild and in any other animal, and Slocombe et al. hope their work will encourage the community to keep their eyes peeled for more displays like this so that a body of observational evidence can emerge.