Chimpanzees are known to use at least 22 types of tools in the wild but in captivity a less rudimentary device now appears to be within ape capabilities – Instagram.
Last week, a video showing a chimpanzee casually swiping through Instagram on a smartphone was posted on the photo-sharing application by Kody Antle, son of Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who is founder of Myrtle Beach Safari, a 50-acre wildlife reserve in South Carolina.
The post showed the chimp, named Sugriva according to Antle’s caption, scrolling through pictures and tapping on a video showing the animal leaping into the arms of Mike Holston, an American former professional football player, who now posts videos of various exotic animals on social media under the moniker The Real Tarzann (sic).
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The video highlighted the curiosity and adaptive nature of chimps, which share 99% of their DNA with humans, making them our closest living relatives in the natural world.
“We’ve known for a long time they have higher intellectual abilities,” said Patricia Wright, a primatologist at Stony Brook University. “This particular chimp is choosing other chimps from photos on Instagram, showing he recognizes not just objects but his own kind.”
Researchers have established before that chimps can navigate technology beyond behaviour seen in the wild, where the apes have been recorded using stone hammers to crack nuts, poking sticks in termite mounds to extract the insects and holding up leaves to use as umbrellas in rainy weather.
In studies, chimps have been found to be adept at computer games, to the extent that one 22-year-old chimp called Panzee managed to outperform 12 children and four adults on a complex maze in a virtual-reality game. The apes can also learn to use tools spontaneously, without watching others first, and appear to solve puzzles for fun, even without getting any sort of reward.
“Chimps have been shown to use computers for quite some time,” said Wright. “People use social media to connect with family and friends and so it’s not too much of a surprise that our closest relative would also use it for that. They are very much like us.”
Sugriva’s use of Instagram illustrates the ongoing work by scientists to delve deeper into the minds of chimps, to better understand the skills and emotions of the animals. This is typically done more formally than the Instagram video, however, which appeared to be shot within a normal house.
Jane Goodall, the famed primatologist, has warned that the video could perpetuate the booming illegal trade in wildlife, which caters to people who want animals like chimps as domesticated companions.
Such attempts have gone awry even in science-led settings, however, such as during Project Nim in the 1970s, where a chimpanzee was reared as a human child by researchers only to be put into captivity after the maturing ape grew in strength and injured several handlers.
“It’s worrisome to me that the chimp seems to be in a home, which is dangerous for people and also chimps,” said Wright. “Chimps are very emotional creatures and we want to protect both the chimps and the humans.”
Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, concurred. “I don’t approve of the conditions under which this video was produced or the goal (which is) probably making money,” de Waal said via email. Neither Antle nor Holston responded to request for comment.
Primatologists stress that the human-like nature of chimps should underline the importance of ensuring the species doesn’t become extinct. Like the other great apes – orangutans, gorillas and bonobos – chimpanzees are considered to be endangered, threatened by habitat loss, poaching and introduced diseases.
Wild populations in Africa are becoming increasingly fragmented, with German researchers finding in 2017 that western chimpanzees, largely found in Guinea and Ivory Coast, have suffered an 80% population slump in the past 25 years.
“They are in dire straits,” said Wright. “There’s so much we don’t understand about them but we know they are endangered and that we should save them from the problem they are experiencing in their home communities.”