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Learning about humans by watching chimps

Marc Hauser of Harvard University has spent many hours watching chimpanzees, learning about what it means to be a chimp.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

If you've ever looked into the intelligent eyes of a chimpanzee at the zoo, you may have had the feeling that this animal was looking back at you with the same type of curiosity. Our two species have many similarities. We find creative ways to solve problems. We nurture and make each other feel better. We're also capable of being bullies.

Marc Hauser of Harvard University has spent many hours watching chimpanzees, learning about what it means to be a chimp. Understanding how chimp life is similar and different from human life can help us understand what it means to be human, Hauser says in an article in the 2 September issue of the journal Science.

This week, researchers are announcing that they have sequenced the chimpanzee genome, meaning they have mapped out the DNA code that's in all the chimp's cells. Since the human genome has also been sequenced, comparing the two genomes will tell us about many of the tiny differences in DNA between our two species.

Hauser says that in order to understand how these DNA differences have enabled humans to live the way we do, we also need understand what it's like to be a chimpanzee. And what it's like to be the other great apes that are humans' closest relatives.

At three years old, Tammy the chimpanzee is self-confident, bold and smart. Born at a small zoo in Puerto Rico, she enjoys life with her active Saint Louis Zoo foster family. She especially likes grapes, scrunchies, picture books and blankets. Mandatory Credit Line: Photo by Carol Weerts, Saint Louis Zoo
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Hauser been studying monkeys and great apes for about 20 years, watching them in their natural habitats and also in zoos. In his Science article, he writes that "that watching chimpanzees is unlike watching any other nonhuman creature. When a chimp looks back at you, your soul has been penetrated. You feel as though your inquisitiveness has been volleyed back, no words or actions exchanged."

He says some of his most exciting experiences have been seeing how chimps solve problems in extremely creative ways. Once he was watching a mother and a baby in a group of trees during a heavy rainstorm. When the mother got too far away from the baby, the baby started calling. Instead of climbing all the way down her tree and going up the baby's tree, the mother began swinging on a branch until she came close enough to the baby's branch to grab it with her arms. Then, the baby climbed across the mother's back, as though it were a bridge.

"It was like she was saying 'I'll meet you halfway'" to the baby, Hauser said.

Chimps can also be bullies when they're in groups, Hauser and other researchers have found. In one experiment, Hauser and his colleague set up a speaker in the wild that played the call of a single male chimp from another community. Groups of three or more males -- but not females or smaller groups of males -- would hoot and holler and approach the speaker aggressively. If the speaker had been a real chimp, things would probably have gotten extremely violent, according to Hauser.

One of Hauser's worries is that illegal hunting and deforestation are destroying chimpanzee populations. We may need to put the same effort into saving chimpanzees as we do into studying them in order to prevent this species from someday becoming extinct.