Taï chimpanzees use botanical skills to discover fruit: what we can learn from their mistakes


Fruit foragers are known to use spatial memory to relocate fruit, yet it is unclear how they manage to find fruit in the first place. In this study, we investigated whether chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) in the Taï National Park make use of fruiting synchrony, the simultaneous emergence of fruit in trees of the same species, which can be used together with sensory cues, such as sight and smell, to discover fruit. We conducted observations of inspections, the visual checking of fruit availability in trees, and focused our analyses on inspections of empty trees, so to say “mistakes”. Learning from their “mistakes”, we found that chimpanzees had expectations of finding fruit days before feeding on it and significantly increased inspection activity after tasting the first fruit. Neither the duration of feeding nor density of fruit-bearing trees in the territory could account for the variation in inspection activity, which suggests chimpanzees did not simply develop a taste for specific fruit on which they had fed frequently. Instead, inspection activity was predicted by a botanical feature—the level of synchrony in fruit production of encountered trees. We conclude that chimpanzees make use of the synchronous emergence of rainforest fruits during daily foraging and base their expectations of finding fruit on a combination of botanical knowledge founded on the success rates of fruit discovery, and a categorization of fruit species. Our results provide new insights into the variety of food-finding strategies employed by primates and the adaptive value of categorization capacities.

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Financial support for this research was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. In Côte d’Ivoire we thank the Ministère de la Recherches Scientifiques, the Ministère de l’Environnement et des Eaux et Forêts, the Office Ivoirien des Parcs et Réserves, the directorship of the Taï National Park, the Centre Suisse de Recherche Scientifique, L.Wittiger, D. Dowd, A. Diarrassouba, I. Kone and S. Kone for logistic support and permission to conduct our studies. We are indebted to J. Tahou, R. Nabo, L. B. Bally and V. Gnagnon for invaluable assistance in the field. We are grateful to L. Polansky for sharing his calculations on synchrony values. We happily acknowledge R. Mundry for training K. Janmaat to model in R and for programming the permutation test and the autocorrelation function. We thank R. Moore, J. Call, A. Kalan and C. Hicks for helpful comments. This study is based on non-invasive observations and complies with the laws of Côte d’Ivoire.

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Correspondence to Karline R. L. Janmaat.

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Janmaat, K.R.L., Ban, S.D. & Boesch, C. Taï chimpanzees use botanical skills to discover fruit: what we can learn from their mistakes. Anim Cogn 16, 851–860 (2013).

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  • Foraging strategies
  • Fruiting synchrony
  • Frugivores
  • Categorization
  • Pan troglodytes