Public Release: 

Human activity quickly killing cultural diversity of the chimpanzee

American Association for the Advancement of Science

The impact human activities have on the cultural behaviors and traditions of our closest relative, the chimpanzee, is drastic, reports a new study - one based on an unprecedented data set of nearly 150 African chimpanzee communities. The findings illustrate the complex and far-reaching implications of human activity on animal species - beyond population and habitat loss - and suggest a need for a more integrative approach to conservation in which the unique behavioral diversity of chimpanzees is recognized and protected, too. Chimpanzees exhibit a high level of behavioral and cultural diversity. Many of these cultural behaviors, the use of tools, for example, are socially learned and transmitted, and occasionally these behaviors, rather like local traditions do, vary between communities. It has been suggested that these cultural behaviors are as vulnerable to environmental disturbance as the chimpanzee communities that exhibit them, by depleting resources and reducing opportunities for the behaviors to be learned. The "disturbance hypothesis," as it is known, predicts that human impacts to chimpanzee communities could not only result in population losses, but also in losses to their unique behavioral traditions. However, the extent to which chimpanzee behavioral and cultural diversity is affected by human-driven habitat and population loss is not well-understood. To address this question, Hjalmar Kühl and colleagues non-invasively compiled an unprecedented data set on animals in 144 chimpanzee communities across Africa unaccustomed to human observers. Information collected included environmental, social, demographic and behavioral observations. Kühl et al. compared the overall occurrence of specific behaviors within each chimpanzee community to the level of nearby human activity. According to the results, chimpanzee communities located in areas with greater human impact demonstrated an 88% lower probability of occurrence across all behaviors included in the analysis, compared to communities with the least human impact.

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