Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It has long been a source of fascination for humans to try to decode the meanings of animal gestures, and thanks to the work of St Andrews researchers encounters with chimpanzees can now be approached with far greater understanding.

A new study by primatologists Dr Catherine Hobaiter and Professor Richard Byrne sheds light on what chimpanzees are attempting to say when they move their hands and body. Through observation of around 4,500 gestures by over 80 wild chimpanzees in the Budongo rainforest in Uganda, an A-Z of the meanings of various gestures (for example, ground slaps and arm raises) has been compiled.

The results have been published in the journal Current Biology, and include revelations such as:

  • Tapping another chimpanzee means “stop that”
  • A raised arm means “I want that”
  • A chimpanzee jumping is indicating to “follow me”
  • A big loud scratch suggests a desire to “initiate grooming”

Commenting on the rationale behind the research, Professor Byrne said: “There is abundant evidence that chimpanzees and other apes gesture with purpose. Apes target their gestures to particular individuals, choosing appropriate gestures according to whether the other is looking or not; they stop gesturing when they get the result they want; and otherwise they keep going, trying out alternative gestures or other tactics altogether.

“It has been known for over 30 years that chimpanzees communicate in this way, but oddly enough nobody has attempted to answer the obvious question, what are these apes actually trying to ‘say’?”

Dr Hobaiter said: “Just as with human words, some gestures have several senses, but importantly the meanings of chimpanzee gestures are the same irrespective of who uses them. Chimpanzees may use more than one gesture for the same purpose – especially in social negotiations, where the final outcome may be a matter of some give and take.”

Speaking later to The Saint, Dr Hobaiter explained how she came to be involved in the project and emphasised her enthusiasm for the cutting edge research undertaken by the University. “The Origins of Mind group in the School of Psychology is one of the top research institutes in the world for our field,” she said.

“I first came here to do my PhD with Professor Dick Byrne, and simply never left! After post-docing here, I was delighted to be offered a lectureship.

“I’ve spent the majority of my time ‘in’ St Andrews living in the Budongo rainforest in Uganda – most of the last eight years. It’s an incredible research site, and there is nothing like the feeling of waking up to chimpanzees pant-hooting in the morning (just as there is nothing quite like the feeling of sitting in an army ant infested swamp waiting for them for half a day…).”

Asked how St Andrews students who are inspired by such research can get involved, she said: “Field primatology is not for everyone, but St Andrews MSc students have a unique opportunity to conduct short-term research projects with us, finding out first hand if they’d like to go on to tackle a field PhD.”

She went on to explain that “now that the basic chimpanzee gesture ‘dictionary’ is known, we can start to tackle other interesting questions. Do some gestures have very general meanings, where their intended sense is understood from the context? Or do subtle variations in how a gesture is made determine which sense was meant?”

It is clear that there is still much more to be learned; when working at the frontiers of science, there is no time for monkeying around.

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