If you were to ask another person for directions, you’d most likely get a verbal response augmented with complimentary hand gestures. Such gesticulations might include pointing a specific way or delivering hand signals to indicate distances or quandaries along the way.
Researchers have long thought that understanding and conveying distance to others requires above-average intelligence that only humans possess. On the other hand, it might be more prevalent in the animal kingdom than initially imagined.
Image Credit: CC0 Public Domain via Phys.org
A new study published in the journal Biology Letters this week by Kyoto University researchers highlights that chimpanzees can express distance and direction to others (in their own unique way, of course).
While humans might raise an index finger to point in a particular direction or depict distance, chimps instead raise their arms and open their mouths to a certain degree to convey distance to one another.
These distinct gestures became particularly evident inside the lab, where researchers filmed eight chimps' reactions with surveillance cameras after slicing bananas into bits and placing them outside of the ape enclosure at various distances.
The researchers entered and left the room repeatedly, teasing the apes with the foodstuffs from different distances before finally feeding them. The cameras recorded every move the apes made throughout the experimentation.
Immediately following the experiment, the researchers analyzed the camera footage carefully. All the chimps displayed body language consistent with wanting the food, but another detail caught their attention.
The further away the researcher was while taunting the food, the higher the apes would raise their arms and the wider they'd open their mouths. Notably, the apes didn't perform the gestures without a researcher present. That said, it appeared to be a clear sign a communication linked to the distance, almost as if the apes wanted us to know the banana bits were too far away – and by how much.
While chimpanzees' choice of gestures might seem odd to us at first glance, our methods of conveying direction and distance could be just as weird to chimps. Some captive chimps that spend a lot of time around humans will point as we do, but wild chimps seem to communicate differently, like those observed in this Kyoto University experiment.
Researchers are only just beginning to scratch the surface of how chimpanzees communicate with one another, but more research could further our understanding of their body language.