Able-bodied wild chimpanzees imitate a motor procedure used by a disabled individual to overcome handicap

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31 Citations (Scopus)


Chimpanzee culture has generated intense recent interest, fueled by the technical complexity of chimpanzee tool-using traditions; yet it is seriously doubted whether chimpanzees are able to learn motor procedures by imitation under natural conditions. Here we take advantage of an unusual chimpanzee population as a 'natural experiment' to identify evidence for imitative learning of this kind in wild chimpanzees. The Sonso chimpanzee community has suffered from high levels of snare injury and now has several manually disabled members. Adult male Tinka, with near-total paralysis of both hands, compensates inability to scratch his back manually by employing a distinctive technique of holding a growing liana taut while making side-to-side body movements against it. We found that seven able-bodied young chimpanzees also used this 'liana-scratch' technique, although they had no need to. The distribution of the liana-scratch technique was statistically associated with individuals' range overlap with Tinka and the extent of time they spent in parties with him, confirming that the technique is acquired by social learning. The motivation for able-bodied chimpanzees copying his variant is unknown, but the fact that they do is evidence that the imitative learning of motor procedures from others is a natural trait of wild chimpanzees.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere11959
Number of pages7
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 5 Aug 2010


  • Pan troglodytes
  • Tool use
  • Imitatitive learning
  • Motor procedures


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