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Chimpanzee Researchers Sound the Alarm

November 13, 1986|WENDY LEOPOLD

CHICAGO — Just as science is documenting remarkable similarities between the thinking and behavior of humans and chimpanzees, man may be on the verge of destroying its brother species.

That cruel irony emerged from a conference in which most of the world's leading chimpanzee researchers compared notes on 25 years of chimpanzee observation and study for the first time in person. In fact, about the only experts not attending were chimpanzees themselves.

But they were well represented. Their intelligence, communication skills and social behavior were reported, discussed and analyzed during the four-day symposium organized by famed researcher Jane Goodall, who has spent more than a quarter-century living among the chimpanzees of Gombe in Tanzania. In addition to the 26 researchers, there were 250 academics and zoo professionals and another 1,200 public registrants who attended Chimpanzee Film Fest or a session led by Goodall.

The threats to chimpanzee survival were also documented. The animals' future is endangered both because of environmental changes and because of their desirability for biomedical research--something that is likely to put them in the forefront of AIDS research and closer to extinction.

"Chimpanzees fascinate us because they are so very like us," said Paul Heltne, director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, sponsor of the conference. The conference is important, he said, because for the first time scientists from around the world were comparing long-term observations, not data based on relatively short periods of study.

"You cannot drop in to one of these life history situations where animals live for 20 to 50 years and think you're going to find out about (how they live and learn) in a one- or two-year study," Heltne said.

"There is a great deal in chimpanzee relationships to remind us of our own behavior," Goodall said, "more perhaps, than many of us would care to admit."

Scientific Controversy

Indeed, there is a controversy among scientists over the relationship between man and chimpanzee, with some scientists strongly holding the view that man is unique among earth creatures. But at this conference the emphasis was on similarities ranging from childlike game playing to adult-like politics. This became readily apparent as participants in session after session reported on different aspects of chimp behavior. For example:

--Chimpanzees make use of tools, such as those observed using a stick to fish for biting driver ants and those who use sticks to force carpenter ants out of their nests in tree trunks.

--Chimp children play in much the same way and play some of the same games as human children. For example, they like to make faces just for the fun of making faces. They have their own form of blindman's bluff, hiding their eyes with their forearms. And they apparently enjoy spinning their bodies until they get dizzy, just as small children like to turn and turn.

--Chimpanzees gently chew and then swallow the leaves of a shrub known to have medicinal properties, leaves also used by man for ailments like stomach aches.

--Chimpanzees not only can learn sign language but, having learned it, can transmit it to other chimpanzees.

--Chimpanzee leaders are politicians, earning their right to rule not through mere strength but by enlisting group support, by coalition building.

--Chimpanzees demonstrate love, compassion, regret, frustration and most other emotions known to man.

"I would be surprised if we have any emotions that they don't have," said researcher Frans de Waal, a primatologist at the University of Wisconsin.

"They are closer to man than a zebra is to a horse, a dog is to a fox or a chimpanzee is to a gorilla," said Geza Teleki, a George Washington University anthropologist.

Beating Researchers

The resemblance extends beyond behavior and into communication and cognitive skills. In one study, chimps outperformed researchers when both were asked to reconstruct a symbol composed of geometric shapes after it was flashed on a screen.

Controversy has swirled around claims that chimps using sign language were doing little more than aping their human teachers. To answer the challenge, Roger and Debbi Fouts, researchers at Washington State University, gave up signing to their four sign-language-trained apes for two years. In that time, remote videotapes showed that the chimps not only continued signing to themselves but also transmitted sign language to a new member of their study group with no previous exposure to sign language. After two years, the chimp had acquired 63 separate signs from his adopted family.

"We put cameras in the chimps' rooms . . . and we watch through monitors and record their behavior without humans present," Roger Fouts said. "If there are no humans there to cue the chimps, and the chimps sign, then obviously" the chimps are doing more than aping their caretakers.

Survival Endangered

But all this research could someday come to an end because of challenges to the survival of chimpanzees.

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