F Rosa Rubicondior: Chimps More Like Us Than We Thought

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Chimps More Like Us Than We Thought

Co-operating chimpanzees
Credit: Christopher F Martin
Chimpanzees shown spontaneously ‘taking turns’ to solve number puzzle | University of Oxford

A new study by researchers from Oxford and Kyoto universities and Cincinnati Zoo has revealed a new level of co-operative behaviour not seen before in other than humans. The chimps were shown to be spontaneously taking turns co-cooperatively to complete a task, a form of behaviour believe to be basic to effective communication where timing cues are taken from one another.

As Dr Dora Biro, co-author of the study from Oxford’s Department of Zoology, said:

Coordinating behaviour is an essential component of many social situations and can enable groups of individuals jointly to solve problems. In communication, coordination often takes the form of turn-taking, where one individual takes cues from the other to decide on the timing of their own input. This can allow for the efficient exchange of information.

Many animals, from insects through birds to primates, take turns during certain types of communication – as do we humans during conversational exchanges. But taking repeated, coordinated turns to achieve a common goal is much less well studied outside the communication domain, despite the possibility that all such behaviours draw on the same underlying cognitive skills for turn-taking.

Our research examined the abilities of our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees, to coordinate their behaviour while completing a computerised puzzle in stages. We showed that extended bouts of turn-taking emerged spontaneously in the subjects, enabling them to solve the complex coordination problem effectively.

Dr Dora Biro, co-author
Oxford University Department of Zoology

The paper, published open access in Scientific Reports elaborated on earlier work in which chimpanzees were shown to be capable of a high level of skill in recognising numbers and clearing them in sequence from a screen by touching touching them in order. The reward for completion was a small piece of apple.

Credit: Christopher F Martin
In this experiment, however, the screen was split vertically down the centre, with numbers distributed randomly between the two sides. The two chimps needed to clear their numbers in co-operation with one another as shown in this video.

Social coordination can provide optimal solutions to many kinds of group dilemmas, and non-human subjects have been shown to perform single actions successively or simultaneously with partners to maximize food rewards in a variety of experimental settings. Less attention has been given to showing how animals are able to produce multiple (rather than single) intermixed and co-regulated actions, even though many species’ signal transmissions and social interactions rely on extended bouts of coordinated turn-taking. Here we report on coordination behaviour in three pairs of chimpanzees (mother/offspring dyads) during an experimentally induced turn-taking scenario. Participants were given a “shared” version of a computer-based serial ordering task that they had previously mastered individually. We found that minimal trial-and-error learning was necessary for the participants to solve the new social version of the task, and that information flow was more pronounced from mothers toward offspring than the reverse, mirroring characteristics of social learning in wild chimpanzees. Our experiment introduces a novel paradigm for studying behavioural coordination in non-humans, able to yield insights into the evolution of turn-taking which underlies a range of social interactions, including communication and language.

The researchers also found that there was evidence that young chimps learn from their mothers and pay special attention to them. When working together in mother/young parings, the young chimps were quicker and made fewer errors than their mothers. However in controlled tests working individually, the mothers were faster, showing that the young paid close attention to their mothers when waiting for cues, but their mothers paid less attention to their young.

Dr Biro again:

The finding that young chimpanzees more readily took cues from their mothers when looking to take their turns reveals interesting parallels with other aspects of information transmission in chimpanzee societies. For example, during the learning of tool use by wild chimpanzees, we also see young individuals paying attention to older ones much more than the reverse. This kind of asymmetry has important implications for the direction of information flow – for example, how quickly new innovations in behaviour will spread through a group.

Besides turn-taking, our task may also provide insights into abilities for cognitive perspective-taking – in other words, the capacity to improve coordination by mentally putting yourself in someone else’s place. Brain studies have shown that this is a skill that musicians use while performing duets that require them to take turns. Whether our chimpanzee subjects made use of such perspective-taking capacities during solving the numerical turn-taking task is an interesting open question for future research.

It seems then that the human ability to look for verbal and non-verbal cues when co-operating in situations where taking turns is important, normal conversation, for example, may have been present, at least in potentia in our common ancestors.

Just another little piece of evidence of common descent and against creationism, provided quite incidentally by science.

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