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Chimpanzees develop their own green cross code for jungle highways

By Geneviève Roberts

September 6, 2006

Chimpanzees have developed the ability to cross roads safely, research has found. Male chimpanzees protect females and their young by taking the front and rear positions in a line, to avoid the danger of traffic.

The study of a chimp community in Bossou, Guinea, conducted by the University of Stirling, has built on prior research that adult female and young monkeys occupy the protected middle positions of a line when travelling towards potentially unsafe areas, such as waterholes.

Kimberley Hockings, who worked on the study, said in the journal Current Biology: "Road-crossing, a human-created challenge, presents a new situation that calls for flexibility of responses by chimpanzees to variations in perceived risk, helping to improve our understanding about the evolution of human social organisation. Dominant individuals act co-operatively with a high level of flexibility to maximise group protection."


The modern hazard of crossing the road has revealed an unprecedented chivalrous streak among wild chimpanzees, according to video footage released yesterday.

When faced with a busy road, large male chimps headed to the front of the pack to check the road was clear before leading females and their young across. Meanwhile, other males headed to the back of the group to bring up the rear. Often, a high-ranking male assumed the role of lollipop man by wandering on to the road and checking it for traffic until the entire pack had crossed safely.

Experts in animal behaviour recorded the extraordinary footage while filming a mixed group of 12 chimps in Guinea, western Africa, as they negotiated two roads that ran through their territory. One road was a simple mud track used as a path by local pedestrians, the other had recently been widened to carry trucks, cars and motorbikes.

The footage, amassed over three months, shows the pack of three adult males, five adult females, three younger chimps and one infant, crossing the roads near the small town of Bossou to reach foraging grounds on the other side.

On each crossing, Kimberley Hockings at Stirling University and Tetsuro Matsuzawa at Tokyo University noted the position of the alpha male, Yola, the secondary male, Foaf, and the lowest-ranking male, Tua. They found that Yola was most often at the back of the pack, with leading or lollipop duties designated to the other adult males.

To test the effect of traffic, the researchers timed how long the chimps paused prior to setting out across each road. Before crossing the smaller road, the group waited an average of 24 seconds, but waited three minutes before choosing to cross the main road and waited longest if there was more traffic using the road.

The footage suggests chimps not only weigh up the risks of modern hazards, but have flexible enough social groups to assume different roles to improve their chances of survival.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, the researchers said: "Adult males, less fearful and more physically imposing than other group members, take up forward and rearward positions, with adult females and young occupying the more protected middle positions.

"Although humans themselves are not predators of these chimpanzees, we propose that road-crossing, a human-created challenge, presents a new situation that calls for flexibility of responses of chimpanzees to variations in perceived risk."

Earlier in the year, ecologists at Cambridge University used hidden cameras in the Congo to capture images of chimpanzees using primitive tools to help them find food. The film shows the moment when a chimpanzee goes searching for a meal at a nearby termite mound.

The footage, thought to be the first of its kind, was taken in the Goualougo Triangle, a 100-square-mile region of land in the Nouabale-Ndoki national park, by Crickette Sanz of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and David Morgan at Cambridge University. It represents the most sophisticated use of tools to be adopted by a group of chimps.
 

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