What is the role of mothers in the acquisition of termite-fishing behaviors in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii)?
This paper explores the role of maternal influences on the acquisition of a tool-using task in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in order to build on and complement previous work done in captivity. Young chimpanzees show a long period of offspring dependency on mothers and it is during this period that offspring learn several important skills, especially how to and on what to forage. At Gombe National Park, one skill that is acquired during dependency is termite-fishing, a complex behavior that involves inserting a tool made from the surrounding vegetation into a termite mound and extracting the termites that attack and cling to the tool. All chimpanzees observed at Gombe have acquired the termite-fishing skill by the age of 5.5 years. Since the mother is the primary source of information throughout this time period, I investigated the influence of mothers' individual termite-fishing characteristics on their offsprings' speed of acquisition and proficiency at the skill once acquired. Mother's time spent alone or with maternal family members, which is highly correlated to time spent termite-fishing, was positively correlated to offspring's acquisition of critical elements of the skill. I also investigated the specific types of social interactions that occur between mothers and offspring at the termite mound and found that mothers are highly tolerant to offspring, even when the behavior of the offspring may disrupt the termite-fishing attempt. However, no active facilitation by mothers of offsprings' attempts were observed.
KeywordsChimpanzee Tool-use Mother-infant interactions Learning
A youngster (left of screen) is seen interacting with her mother during a termite-fishing session. The youngster repeatedly attempts to steal termites from her mother's tool, which her mother tries to avoid (a negative response). Note that the mother makes no effort to facilitate the offsprings's actions