A research collaboration between the Gonzaga University and the Max Planck Institute shows that the way in which chimpanzees groom each other depends on the community to which they belong. Specifically, it is the unique handclasp grooming behavior that reveals this local difference.
The specific behavior that the researchers focused on was the ‘grooming handclasp’, a behavior where two chimpanzees clasp onto each others arms, raise those arms up in the air, and groom each other with their free arm. This behavior has only been observed in some chimpanzee populations. The question remained whether chimpanzees are instinctively inclined to engage in grooming handclasp behavior, or whether they learn this behavior from each other and pass it on to subsequent generations.
Edwin van Leeuwen and Katherine Cronin of the Comparative Cognitive Anthropology research group of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics led by Daniel Haun conducted their observations between 2007 and 2012 at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia. At Chimfunshi, a mix of wild- and captive-born chimpanzees live in woodlands in some of the largest enclosures in the world. The Max Planck team collaborated with students from Gonzaga University led by Mark Bodamer, a team of local chimpanzee caretakers, and Roger Mundry of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in order to collect and comprehend the detailed chimpanzee data.
Previous research suggested that the grooming handclasp might be a cultural phenomenon, just like humans across cultures engage in different ways of greeting each other. However, these suggestions were primarily based on observations that some chimpanzee communities handclasp and others don’t — not whether there are differences between communities that engage in hand clasping. Moreover, the early observations could have been explained by differences in genetic and/or ecological factors between the chimpanzee communities, which precluded the interpretation that the chimpanzees were exhibiting ‘cultural’ differences.
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