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

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Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to Richard W. Byrne.

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Hobaiter, C., Byrne, R.W. Serial gesturing by wild chimpanzees: its nature and function for communication. Anim Cogn 14, 827–838 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-011-0416-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-011-0416-3

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