What are Chimps Saying?

  • By Michael Rivera
  • Posted 04.04.18
  • NOVA

Chimps have their own rich world of communication—it’s sort of like a secret sign language.

Running Time: 04:23


What are Chimps Saying?

Published April 4, 2018

Catherine Hobaiter: When I first came to the rainforest, this was an alien world for me. I had no clue what to do, how to be, how to move around in here.

Narrator: Budongo forest, western Uganda. Cat Hobaiter is setting off for work.

Hobaiter: Trying to understand their communication means understanding their behavior, their life, everything that goes on here. I’m the luckiest person in the world because I get paid to run around rainforests with wild chimps. I love this.

Narrator: She’s spent over ten years studying these chimps. In the process, she has unearthed a hidden form of communication. Those scratches, shaking of trees…to Cat they aren’t random motions. They’re part of an elaborate code, a secret “language” of chimps.

Hobaiter: All of these gestures are a part of chimpanzee communication and they grow up with them. To humans, it might seem really subtle, like a tiny little push, or a tiny little pull, and that's really hard for us to see, but I think to the chimps it's very obvious what's going on.

So she's sitting down, looking up at her daughters, and she's giving a big scratch, so she’s ready to go.

Narrator: That’s Harriet, and that scratch, it’s not because she has fleas. It’s actually a signal to her daughter Harmony.

Hobaiter: And the little one's coming down now. Well that scratch has two meanings: one of them is groom me and the other one is let’s travel together. Oh hohoho! The loud scratch got her to come down. They’re all going to go down the tree and that’s them leaving together.

Narrator: To the untrained eye, the gestures don’t look like much. Only after hundreds of days and even more nights poring over 4000 hours of video did Cat start to put the pieces together -

Hobaiter: So in this case the gesture is a big loud scratch, but here it means “travel with me.”

Narrator: But it’s not enough to just see the same gestures over and over--she needs to see some evidence of a back-and-forth, a conversation—

Hobaiter: In this case, um he wants her to come and be groomed by him so he’s going to give these big scratches and he’s waiting for a response, so that didn’t work she didn’t do what he wanted, she didn’t do anything so he here gives a little object shake, and he gives the scratch again so he’s combining those two gestures, but still nothing from her, she’s just not interested at the moment so he’s giving a really exaggerated version.

It’s like a back and forth between the two of them. Big scratch, object shake… Come on, I want to groom you, come over here. That seems to have done the trick because she comes down and they start grooming.

The reason I know this is an intentional gesture, and not just a chimp shaking a branch in the forest, is because he gives it, and he waits for that response. And when he doesn't get what he wants, he gives it again. He persists. But once he does get what he wants, then he stops. And it's the same as human conversations and communications. After you've passed me the thing I'm asking for, then I don't keep on asking for it.

Narrator: Cat has come up with over 60 different gestures with more than 19 different meanings.

Hobaiter: Stop.

Groom me.

And we're still picking up possibly finding new ones all of the time.

Move closer.

I think in terms of an animal to human system of translation…


We probably have the most meanings translated here.

Let’s go.

Let’s be friends

And that’s certainly compared to a lot of other animal systems of communication, it’s much richer. It gives us much more detail than we've been able to find elsewhere.

Let’s have sex.

Yeah it's easy for us to want to focus in on language. You know, we're quite self-obsessed as a species, we want to know what is it that might be special or different about ourselves. But what the chimps have going on here is their own incredible rich world of communication.



Digital Producer
Michael Rivera
Michael Bicks & Anna Lee Strachan
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018

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