Many people often wonder: how much are chimps actually like us? One of the things that make humans unique is that we can recognize ourselves. Anyone who has watched a dog notice his reflection in a mirror can see that the dog is reacting to the image as if he was interacting with another dog, trying to play with the ‘new’ dog or scare off the ‘intruder’ by barking. This is called a social response, as if the animal was socializing with another animal like himself. For an animal, it is easy to assume that if they see an image it represents another individual because at first glance this is what it appears to be. They have a natural urge to categorize others as friends or foe, ultimately determining if they are in danger or not. Apes have a more complex reaction to their reflection.  Initially they too, react as if they are seeing another individual, but then they notice that they are in control of the image they see. Chimpanzees do something scientists call contingency testing – they make movements while watching themselves in the mirror.  It seems to be the way they figure out that it is themselves in the mirror and not other chimpanzees.  They then explore parts of their body that they wouldn’t normally be able to see without the aid of a mirror. They use the mirror to more carefully groom their backs, necks and face. Often they carefully clean their eyes and teeth, locations they would not be able to see needed attention without the use of a mirror. This behavior parallels the behaviors that humans can be seen doing in mirrors and emphasizes the remarkable similarity between the simple behaviors of humans and  chimpanzees. 

Decision making

Most animals do not seem to make conscious decisions.  Instead, they react by instinct, an inborn pattern of behavior that is triggered by a strong natural impulse. The average animal doesn’t waste time considering how he or she should react to a situation because taking those extra seconds could mean the difference between life and death. The gazelle that pauses to wonder whether or not he should run from a lion will be the one most likely to be caught and eaten. Any animal, including gazelles, spend most of their time foraging but always have to be on the watch for predators. 


The gazelle that will have the greatest chance at living the longest would be one that could detect and run from predators the quickest; complex decision making is not required and would even hinder this split second action. Chimpanzees are not like flighty gazelles. They seem to wait, observe their situation and surroundings, weigh the costs and benefits to their behavior, and then act based on what they have seen and considered.  In waiting and gathering information about their surroundings a chimp may be able to make a more informed decision about where to find food and how to access it.


Problem solving

Problem solving is a skill that is dependent on having a complex brain that can accommodate the absorption and synthesis of many different stimuli. As you learned earlier, a chimpanzee is known to observe and make decisions based on the situation.  This leads us to believe that a chimp can be a good problem solver. The act of solving problems opens a lot of new possible rewards for the animals that are capable of it.  In one instance, a chimpanzee in a laboratory setting was presented with a banana that was just out of reach. The chimp had two sticks available to it that were separately each too short to reach the banana, but that could be interlocked and used as a whole, longer stick to knock down the food.  The chimpanzee used what is called insight, knowing how an object can be applied to the task at hand without any former practice, and also demonstrated tool use.  Other animals could not comprehend the concept of using a stick to reach a banana because of the indirect thought that has to be applied in using the tool. A lemur would never use a stick to get food that was out of his or her reach because they make direct connections between seeing and eating their food. If they can’t reach it they won’t use tools (because they only manipulate objects when they try to eat them), and they may just give up.



There is no doubt that animals can communicate. They just don’t go about it in exactly the same way as humans.  Chimpanzees, as well as other animals, communicate vocally but non-verbally; that is they make noises that indicate their general mood, but they don’t use words to communicate exactly how they feel. For a chimpanzee, words are often unnecessary because they can make their intentions clear without using words. For instance, to get help from a group member, a chimpanzee with a thorn in her skin merely has to present the troublesome area to another chimp. The second chimp obligingly grooms the first to try to alleviate any problems he or she may find.  more on communication

Evolution of Intelligence

If we take a look at the evolutionary history of primates, it can be seen that as monkeys and apes get more closely related to humans there is a trend towards having more complex cognition, or thought processes. A lemur is the simplest kind of primate and is most distantly related to humans. Lemurs will investigate objects with their mouth and hands, and do so only as they would if they were foraging. They explore their world with the same pattern of behavior they use to look for food.  Every animal forages for food, so the lemur’s behavior is not much different from  non-primates’ behaviors.  After lemurs, on the evolutionary tree, come monkeys. They readily manipulate objects, but don’t pay attention to the effects they produce.  For instance a snow monkey will thoroughly investigate an object, turning it over and pulling it apart much more than a lemur would, but if they shake something that rattles, the monkey will not try to repeat the action to make the noise again.  The monkey is only concerned at finding the food available to him or her, not in the interesting effects he or she produces when manipulating objects. Great apes come next on the evolutionary tree. They are the closest evolutionary relatives to humans.  All four species of great apes: orangutan, gorilla, bonobo and chimpanzee, manipulate and investigate objects that aren’t related to foraging. This already shows a distinction between apes and primates that are less closely related to humans. Nest building requires the manipulation of materials that isn’t driven by the need to get food. It has been found that chimpanzees do the same behaviors, just like young human child would: exploring surroundings and repeating interesting effects, like unexpected results or strange noises, made through the manipulation of objects.

Decision making, problem solving, and a consciousness of one’s own self are three characteristics that set chimpanzees apart from most other primates. Monkeys would never feel compelled to explore the possibilities of using an object such as a tool or recognize that their own reflection is not a threat against them. Most often, when a predator approaches a troop of monkeys they flee at the first sign of danger; this is very similar to the strategy of the cautious gazelle. These traits, intrinsic to the chimpanzee, simultaneously define how they differ from other primates and draw the connections that link us humans to our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee. We can see our own behaviors in the way they groom themselves in a mirror or develop clever solutions to the problems that challenge them.


Message from CAC'ers

We saw a non-vocal request for grooming happen in one of the chimp communities we visited.  The female could not get comfortable and kept ‘asking’ other chimps to see if they could help her.  She was very persistent and definitely determined to get the thorn removed!

The similarities in intelligence that are recognized as something we and chimpanzees both share should not be overlooked when considering what actions to take when it concerns their welfare and the forests they live in.


Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.