Animal Cognition

, Volume 14, Issue 6, pp 827–838 | Cite as

Serial gesturing by wild chimpanzees: its nature and function for communication

  • Catherine Hobaiter
  • Richard W. Byrne
Original Paper


Chimpanzees at Budongo, Uganda, regularly gesture in series, including ‘bouts’ of gesturing that include response waiting and ‘sequences’ of rapid-fire gesturing without pauses. We examined the distribution and correlates of 723 sequences and 504 bouts for clues to the function of multigesture series. Gesturing by older chimpanzees was more likely to be successful, but the success rate of any particular gesture did not vary with signaller age. Rather, older individuals were more likely to choose successful gestures, and these highly successful gestures were more often used singly. These patterns explain why bouts were recorded most in younger animals, whereas older chimpanzees relied more on single gestures: bouts are best interpreted as a consequence of persistence in the face of failure. When at least one gesture of a successful type occurred in a sequence, that sequence was more likely to be successful; overall, however, sequences were less successful than single gestures. We suggest that young chimpanzees use sequences as a ‘fail-safe’ strategy: because they have the innate potential to produce a large and redundant repertoire of gestures but lack knowledge of which of them would be most efficient. Using sequences increases the chance of giving one effective gesture and also allows users to learn the most effective types. As they do so, they need to use sequences less; sequences may remain important for subtle interpersonal adjustment, especially in play. This ‘Repertoire Tuning’ hypothesis explains a number of results previously reported from chimpanzee gesturing.


Communication Great ape Pan Intentional gesture Sequences Repertoire tuning 



We thank the staff of the Budongo Conservation Field Station, especially Amati Stephen, and the BCFS project founder Vernon Reynolds and its current scientific director Klaus Zuberbühler for allowing us to work at the site. For permission to work in Uganda, we thank the Ugandan National Council for Science and Technology, the Presidents Office, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Uganda Forest Authority. The fieldwork of CH was generously supported by grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Thomas and Margaret Roddan Trust and the Russell Trust.


  1. Altmann J (1974) Observational study of behaviour: sampling methods. Behaviour 49:227–265PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Byrne RW, Tanner JE (2006) Gestural imitation by a gorilla: evidence and nature of the phenomenon. Int J Psychol Psychol Therapy 6:215–231Google Scholar
  3. Call J (2001) Body imitation in an enculturated orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Cybern Syst 32:97–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Call J, Tomasello M (2007a) The gestural communication of apes and monkeys. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, HillsdaleGoogle Scholar
  5. Call J, Tomasello M (2007b) The gestural repertoire of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). In: Call J, Tomasello M (eds) The gestural communication of apes and monkeys. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, pp 17–39Google Scholar
  6. Cartmill EA, Byrne RW (2007) Orangutans modify their gestural signalling according to their audience’s comprehension. Curr Biol 17:1345–1348PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cartmill EA, Byrne RW (2010) Semantics of primate gestures: intentional meanings of orangutan gestures. Animal Cognit 13:793–804CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Custance DM, Whiten A, Bard KA (1994) The development of gestural imitation and self-recognition in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children. In: Roeder JJ, Thierry B, Anderson JR, Herrenschmidt N (eds) Current primatology: vol 2: social development learning and behaviour. Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg, pp 381–387Google Scholar
  9. Custance DM, Whiten A, Bard KA (1995) Can young chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) imitate arbitrary actions? Hayes & Hayes (1952) revisited. Behaviour 132:11–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Genty E, Byrne RW (2010) Why do gorillas make sequences of gestures? Animal Cognit 13:287–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Genty E, Breuer T, Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2009) Gestural communication of the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla): repertoire, intentionality and possible origins. Animal Cognit 12:527–546CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Goodall J (1968) The behaviour of free-living chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Reserve. Animal Behav Monogr 1:163–311Google Scholar
  13. Goodall J (1972) A preliminary report on expressive movements and communication in the Gombe stream Chimpanzees. In: Dolhinow P (ed) Primate patterns. Holt, Rinehart & Winston Inc., New YorkGoogle Scholar
  14. Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2011) The gestural repertoire of the wild chimpanzee. Animal Cognit. doi: 10.1007/s10071-011-0409-2
  15. Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (in press) Gesture use in consortship: wild chimpanzees’ use of gesture for an ‘evolutionarily urgent’ purpose. In: Pika S (ed) Current developments in non-human primate gesture research. John Benjamins Publishing Company, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar
  16. Kalan AK, Rainey HJ (2009) Hand-clapping as a communicative gesture by wild female swamp gorillas. Primates 50:273–275PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. King BJ (2004) The dynamic dance: nonvocal communication in African great apes. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  18. Kuhl PK, Tsao FM, Liu HM (2003) Foreign-language experience in infancy: effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100:9096–9101PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Leavens DA, Hopkins WD (1998) Intentional communication by chimpanzees: a cross-sectional study of the use of referential gestures. Dev Psychol 34:813–822PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Leavens DA, Russell JL, Hopkins WD (2005) Intentionality as measured in the persistence and elaboration of communication by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Child Dev 76:291–306PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Lenneberg EH (1968) The biological basis for language. Wiley, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  22. Liebal K, Call J, Tomasello M (2004a) Use of gesture sequences in chimpanzees. Am J Primatol 64:377–396PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Liebal K, Pika S, Call J, Tomasello M (2004b) To move or not to move; how apes adjust to the attentional state of others. Interact Stud 5:199–219CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Liebal K, Pika S, Tomasello M (2006) Gestural communication of orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). Gesture 6:1–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Meissner CA, Brigham JC (2001) Thirty years of investigating the own-race bias in memory for faces—a meta-analytic review. Psychol Public Policy Law 7:3–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Nishida T (1980) The leaf-clipping display: a newly-discovered expressive gesture in wild chimpanzees. J Hum Evol 9:117–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Oyama S (1976) Sensitive period for acquisition of a non-native phonological system. J Psycholinguist Res 5:261–283CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Pascalis O, Scott LS, Kelly DJ, Shannon RW, Nicholson E, Coleman M, Nelson CA (2005) Plasticity of face processing in infancy. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 102:5297–5300PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Pika S, Mitani JL (2006) Referential gestural communication in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Curr Biol 70:207–210Google Scholar
  30. Plooij FX (1978) Some basic traits of language in wild chimpanzees. In: Lock A (ed) Action, gesture and symbol: the emergence of language. Academic Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  31. Pollick AS, de Waal FBM (2007) Ape gestures and language evolution. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104:8184–8189PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Tanner JE (2004) Gestural phrases and gestural exchanges by a pair of zoo-living lowland gorillas. Gesture 4:1–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Tanner JE, Byrne RW (1996) Representation of action through iconic gesture in a captive lowland gorilla. Curr Anthropol 37:162–173CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Tanner JE, Byrne RW (1999) The development of spontaneous gestural communication in a group of zoo-living lowland gorillas. In: Parker ST, Mitchell RW, Miles HL (eds) The mentalities of gorillas and orangutans. Comparative perspectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 211–239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Tomasello M (1996) Do apes ape? In: Heyes CM, Galef BG (eds) Social learning in animals: the roots of culture. Academic, San Diego, pp 319–346CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Tomasello M, Call J (2007) Intentional communication in nonhuman primates. In: Call J, Tomasello M (eds) The gestural communication of apes and monkeys. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, pp 1–15Google Scholar
  37. Tomasello M, George B, Kruger A, Farrar J, Evans E (1985) The development of gestural communication in young chimpanzees. J Hum Evol 14:175–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Tomasello M, Gust D, Frost TA (1989) A longitudinal investigation of gestural communication in young chimpanzees. Primates 30:35–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Tomasello M, Call J, Nagell C, Olguin R, Carpenter M (1994) The learning and use of gestural signals by young chimpanzees: a trans-generational study. Primates 35:137–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution and Scottish Primate Research Group, School of PsychologyUniversity of St AndrewsSt Andrews, FifeUK

Personalised recommendations