Chimpanzee Mothers Teach Their Offspring How to Use Tools

A team of researchers has found that chimpanzee mothers actively teach their offspring how to use tools. This behavior, never before documented, provides new insights into primate tool-use and learning. The findings are in a paper that was just published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) are known for their use of tools. The apes use fishing probes to extract termites, a good source of food, from termite mounds. While this behavior has been observed frequently, scientists had yet to see adults teaching young chimps. Researchers weren’t sure if young chimpanzees figured out the behavior on their own, learned by watching others, or were actually taught by older chimps.

Scientists from Washington University in St. Louis observed wild chimpanzees at the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of the Congo. The team set cameras by termite mounds and recorded video for 224 hours. They later analyzed the footage to look for examples of younger chimpanzees learning how to use fishing probes. Specifically, they looked for examples of tool transfers and teaching behaviors.

The team found that mother chimpanzees teach their young how to use tools. The mothers would demonstrate tool use and provide tools for their offspring. They would bring multiple tools or simply split their own probe lengthwise. These strategies allowed a mother to teach her offspring without sacrificing her own ability to gather food. The young chimps learned which materials to use when fashioning a probe as well as how to use it to extract termites.

There is now documented evidence of mother chimpanzees teaching young chimps how to build and use fishing probes. Mothers will even bring along extra tools to help their young learn. The team believes that this knowledge could improve our current understanding of primate behavior and tool-use. The findings may also help scientists study learning and teaching behaviors in other primate species, including humans.


Musgrave et al. Tool transfers are a form of teaching among chimpanzees. Scientific Reports (2016).

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