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Research shows spontaneous cooperation in chimpanzees

The study apparatus required that chimpanzees remove a barrier in order for another chimpanzee to simultaneously pull in a tray baited with food. The apparatus was mounted to the outdoor enclosure, allowing the chimpanzees to come and go as they wanted.
Credit: Yerkes National Primate Research Center Usage Restrictions: None

Cooperation to obtain a mutual objective and cooperation as a group has been considered to be only a human behavior. New evidence from Dr. Malini Suchak, Dr. Frans de Waal, Dr. Matt Campbell, and Tim Eppley from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University shows that chimpanzees cooperate spontaneously. This is the first absolute demonstration of cooperation in primates that are not human. The research was presented in the June 12, 2014, edition of the journal PeerJ.

The study involved 11 members of a chimpanzee social group housed in an outdoor environment. The environment was a key factor in allowing normal behavior in the animals and providing an array of distractions that could interfere with any potential cooperative behavior. The study apparatus required the cooperative effort of two or three chimpanzees to lift a barrier in order for another chimpanzee to receive a food reward. All of the test runs lasted for one hour. The design for the investigation prevented any attribution of human behavior to the test animals.

The chimpanzees preferred to attempt the task with family members or with chimpanzees of equal rank. The cooperative efforts of the chimpanzees were initiated by the animals spontaneously as was the choice of partners. The overwhelming majority of attempts to complete the task by the test animals were successful. Both groups of two and three animals demonstrated equal rates of success with the task.

The results indicate a much higher level of cooperative behavior in chimpanzees than has ever been seen before. The study required that the test animals select partners to accomplish the task, determine which partners were most successful in completing the task, and to produce a reward for a single individual through a group effort. The researchers consider the results as proof that the behaviors that are considered cooperation in humans are active in chimpanzees. Cooperation in humans is ancient and may have been an evolutionary gift from man’s non-human ancestors.