The Great Ape Behavioral Parallel - 3

Written by Michael C. Mayes and Jeremy D. Wells Friday, 13 March 2009

By Michael C. Mayes and Jeremy D. Wells

A widely publicized study, authored by Mathias Osvath, a Ph.D. candidate at Lund University, seems to indicate some startling information about the intellectual capacities of the chimpanzee. In particular, Osvath studied the territorial displays of a captive chimpanzee named Santino. The observed behaviors of this particular chimpanzee seem to prove that apes are very much aware of the future and can plan ahead for it just as humans do.

According to a report on Osvath’s work in the journal Current Biology, Santino, a chimpanzee residing at Sweden’s Furuvik Zoo, collected a stash of rocks during periods of calm, stashed them away, and then hurled them at unsuspecting zoo visitors who gawked and laughed at his daily territorial displays. Because the enclosure is relatively rock free, and many of the stones Santino launched at visitors were covered in algae, it was inferred that he initially collected many of his stones from the waters of the moat surrounding his enclosure. However, in looking to supplement his arsenal, Santino went so far as to probe the artificial concrete “boulders” in his enclosure seeking weak spots. Once located, the chimp knocked off chunks of the material to add to his weapons cache. If the collected concrete was too large to easily toss, Santino worked at breaking it into more manageably sized pieces. Even more impressive is that Santino did all of his collecting in the morning hours before the zoo opened and waited until midday before raining down his collection upon zoo patrons.

“These observations,” Osvath said, “convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way.” Osvath also stated, “It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events.” Osvath based his findings not only on his own observations, but those of three zoo caretakers who followed the chimp’s behavior for 10 years at the Furuvik zoo. He added, “It is very special that he first realizes that he can make these (throwing sized projectiles) and then plans on how to use them. This is more complex than what has been showed before. The fact that the ape stayed calm while preparing his weapons but used them when he was extremely agitated proves that the planning behavior was not based on an immediate emotional drive.”

Joseph Call, author of a 2006 study of orangutan and bonobo behaviors conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, did say that it is unclear as to how typical this level of intelligence might be in chimpanzees as a species. “It could be that he is a genius, only more research will tell.” He did add, “On the other hand, our research showed the same (awareness of the future and ability to plan ahead) in orangutans and bonobos. So, he is not alone.” Studies by Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, on the language abilities of the bonobo, also seem to indicate a greater deal of awareness and planning among the great apes than humanity had assumed.

The connection to wood ape research is fairly obvious. There have been many reports of wood apes throwing sticks or rocks at witnesses, including some of the earliest recorded reports. For instance the famous Mt. Saint Helen’s area Ape Canyon incident of 1924, reported by prospector Fred Beck, included reports of rocks hurled at the cabin where Beck and his companions bunked. While some retellings of the story have the attackers dislodging boulders, which undoubtedly adds to the drama, Beck himself disputed these claims. As Beck noted in his short book on the incident, “Most accounts tell of giant boulders being hurled against the cabin, and say some even fell through the roof, but this was not quite the case. There were very few large rocks around in that area. It is true that many smaller ones were hurled at the cabin, but they did not break through the roof, but hit with a bang, and rolled off.” Going back further still, the diary of Elkanah Walker (an early missionary to the Spokane people), relates stories he heard from natives about a “race of giants” inhabiting “a certain mountain off to the west.” It is believed by many that the mountain Walker was referencing was Mt. Saint Helens. However the most intriguing part of Walker’s entry on the “giants” isn’t which mountain they lived on, but their behavior toward their human neighbors. “It is not uncommon for them to come in the night,” he wrote, “and give three whistles and then the stones will begin to hit their houses.”

This type of reported behavior has often been scoffed at by many in the media and even the scientific community as being too fantastic to be believable. However, now that this behavior has been observed in several different species of great apes, accounts of witnesses having rocks rained down upon them, their cabins, tents, or vehicles seem much more plausible.

Of even more interest though, is the notion that great apes seem to have an understanding of how possible future events may play out and, therefore, make contingency plans for them. While to Walker such reports were so fantastic that he labeled them “superstitions,” and Beck was so shaken by the capacities of the apes that attacked him that he came to believe they were supernatural or spiritual beings, it could very well be that the behaviors these men heard of and experienced were so disconcerting because, to their minds, they were outside the realm of possibility for known animals of any kind, including primates. Could it be that, rather than encountering “mountain devils” as Beck would contend, hikers, campers, and fishermen who have had rocks rain down on them have simply stumbled too close to the actual nest or breeding area of a wood ape? Perhaps these types of reports should be examined more closely than a typical sighting report (if, indeed, there is such a thing as a typical sighting report). Based on the behaviors observed in Santino the chimpanzee, it may not be so far-fetched to think it possible that a wood ape might stash rocks or limbs in several locations around its true home to be used in the event an intruder wanders just a bit too close.

By far the most commonly reported response of the wood ape to human interlopers is simply to walk away. The stick or rock throwing is a very different, and apparently more aggressive, behavior. What could elicit such a seemingly atypical response? If the inferences we draw from Santino’s territorial displays and associated rock throwing apply to the wood ape, it could be that the intruder was too close to the animal’s home, young, or main food source. If true, such areas might yield positive results if monitored closely over long periods of time.

And what if a rock strikes a researcher? Well, if it results in definitive documentation, a bump on the head might just be a small price to pay for the discovery of the century.


BBC News/Science & Environment.

Beck, Fred; told to Ronald Beck. (1967). I Fought the Apemen of Ape Canyon, Mount St. Helens, WA.

Drury, Clifford. (1976). Nine Years with the Spokane Indians: the Diary, 1838-1848, of Elkanah Walker. The Arthur H. Clarke Company, Glendale, CA Current Biology. Volume 19, Issue 5, pages 190-191, 10 March 2009. Spontaneous planning for future stone throwing by a male chimpanzee.

Susan Savage-Rumbaugh. Apes that write, start fires and play Pac-man.

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