Scientists have discovered yet another commonality between humans and our closest cousins in the animal kingdom. According to the journal Animal Cognition, chimpanzees have developed a fascination with fashion trends.
This latest case of copy-ape behavior began at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust sanctuary in Zambia with a chimpanzee named Julie. For no apparent reason, Julie decided to place a piece of grass in her ear. The study’s lead researcher, Edwin Van Leeuwen, first noticed Julie’s quirky behavior in 2010, when she would leave the straw-like object in her ears while grooming, playing or sleeping. The trend-setting Julie soon sparked a wave of fashion-forward thinking in the other chimps, who began to mimic her grass-in-the-ear behavior.
The chimpanzees’ fashion fascination piqued van Leeuwen’s interest. He began investigating whether this behavioral shift was a result of social learning. His year-long research endeavor studied 94 chimpanzees living in four distinct social groups at the sanctuary, and accrued over 700 hours of video footage. One of these four groups, it was discovered, routinely displayed the grass-in-the-ear behavior. The fashion truly took off when Julie’s son Jack began doing it as well. Eight of the 12 chimps in Julie’s social group began to take after her, while only one chimpanzee from another group adopted the fashion choice.
The trend outlived its creator, however, with the other chimps keeping the grass-in-the-ear look alive even after Julie had died. The fact that these arbitrary behaviors can outlast their originators speaks to chimpanzees’ “cultural potential,” concluded Van Leeuwen, who is a PhD student at the Netherlands-based Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Animal behavioral experts at the Max Planck Institute have argued that the research showed that chimpanzees develop cultural patterns that are unique to individual groups.
The fascination with fashion is not the only human-like behavior that chimpanzees have developed. A recent Emory University study showed that chimps also have specific tastes in music as well. Researchers at the Atlanta university have found that the primates prefer traditional Indian and West African melodies over the strong and steady beats of Western music. According to Frans de Waal, a primatologist at the university and one of the study’s co-authors, the chimps may view the predictable rhythm of Western music as threatening, since chimpanzee displays of dominance frequently use similarly repeated sounds such as clapping, stomping, and banging.
Some primates have also become familiar with modern technological devices. Thanks to the Apps for Apes project at the nonprofit Orangutan Outreach organization, over a dozen zoos around the world have incorporated Apple iPads into their regiment of behavioral enrichment options. The three goals of the Apps for Apes program are to provide stimulation and gratification to orangutans, raise awareness about the needs to protect orangutans in the wild and promote the overall efforts of the organization.
Becky Malinksy, a great ape keeper at Washington’s National Zoo, described Apps for Apes as a perfect fit for the “new era of zookeeping.” The iPads are used for creative and recreational purposes, rather than as an outlet for critical thinking. The orangutans use the touchscreen technology to draw and make music. They also enjoy using the devices as mirrors and watching footage of themselves or other primates in their groups.
Chimpanzees’ fascination with music and fashion indicates mental and societal capacities that are far more nuanced and complex than the rudimentary understanding of primates that people once held as fact. These studies show that the separation between mankind and the animal kingdom is not as wide as once believed.
By Yitzchak Besser