For thousands of years, humans have dreamt of understanding the language of animals. Now scientists are telling us that they’re beginning to understand chimpanzee communication. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by DuPont.
Roger Fouts is co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University. He tells us that chimps communicate with each other mostly by gesture. By carefully observing their gestures, vocalizations and other behavior, Fouts has begun to learn what they’re talking about. He even has sound and sign language conversations with them.
ambience: Chimp and human vocal exchange
“The vast majority of the things they talk about are pretty much the same things that you would talk about in your family, in your home.”
Chimpanzee adults apparently spend some of their time reassuring their children or playing the role of disciplinarian, which sounds strangely familiar? Chimps also converse about recreation and grooming. If a chimp has a piece of food hanging from its chin, he’ll likely be told about it.
“But it’s mainly social things. In fact, we did one study where we looked at over five thousand chimpanzee to chimpanzee sign language utterances in this group, and found that only five percent of them had to do with food. Whereas some people say, well they only sign for reward, which is crazy. It’s like I’m only talking to you because you’re feeding me M&Ms. That’s not true. I’m doing it because we’re social. We’re, we’re social critters, this is what we do.”
According to Fouts, when the subject is food, chimps tend to describe their favorite morsel of the moment, rather than just ask for it.
We’ll hear more on chimpanzee communication in future programs. Pulse of the Planet is presented by DuPont, bringing you the miracles of science, with additional support provided by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.