Chimpanzee Communication

There is no doubt that, like humans, animals can communicate. However, they donít go about it in exactly the same way as humans. Chimpanzees, as well as other animals, communicate vocally but non-verbally, meaning they make noises that indicate their general mood, but they donít use words to communicate exactly how they feel. For a chimpanzee words are often unnecessary; they can make their intentions clear without them.

Vocal communication

Chimpanzees and humans make vocalizations in situations to give another individual a message or express an emotion. Not all vocal communication has to be performed with words. Think of a time when someone is laughing or crying, people nearby know exactly what the individual is feeling without a single word being spoken between them. We know that laughter is normally associated with happiness and feelings of joy and that crying and whimpering is normally associated with feelings of sadness.  This is the same as in chimpanzees! A chimpanzee will whimper or cry when they are feeling distressed and laugh when they feel excitement.  When young chimpanzees play they will emit a breathy laughter, just like you do when you play with your friends or family. Chimpanzees can recognize each otherís voices just like you can recognize your friendís voice on the telephone.  Each chimpanzee makes a unique pant hoot that is used to recognize the individual, much like how humans have different voices. A chimpanzee can pant hoot from across the forest and a human can talk over the phone or from behind a door and the individual, chimpanzee and human, can be recognized by their sound alone. 

Chimpanzees use over 30 vocalizations in different situations. Look at the list below containing many more vocalizations and imagine what sounds you would make in those situations. You can see how similar some of the sounds are to what you would do in the same situation!




unusual or dangerous situation; fear

Arrival Pant Hoot


Laugh,lip smack, pant


Soft grunts while foraging or resting




soft bark (cough)


Scream, Bark

fear, anger



Hoo, whimper


Food grunt, food aaa call

Food Enjoyment

Non-Vocal Communications

There are many messages and emotions shared with facial expressions and simple body language in both chimpanzees and humans. There are gestures that are used in non-vocal communication in which contact is made between individualsí bodies and there are gestures where no physical contact is made at all. 

Chimpanzees will hold hands, kiss, pat each otherís backs, and groom with friendly touches. All of these chimp gestures are seen in humans and also have the same meaning that humans give them!  It is easy to see with holding hands and kissing in humans, but what about patting backs and grooming? Often, we will pat the back of another to give them reassurance. Think of a sporting event where a coach pats the back of an athlete who has improved or done well, have you ever been in a situation where your coach pats you on the back because you have done something right during a game or practice? Did it leave you feeling good about yourself even though there were no words exchanged between the two of you? Gestures have a way of conveying a variety of feelings without having to communicate verbally. We will also hug or shake hands for reassurance after a figure of authority upsets us. And, what about grooming? Chimpanzees groom each other by moving another individualís hair around and removing dead pieces of skin, insects, or other particles that may fall into their hair. Many times young girls will play with each otherís hair, putting it into different styles. Human adults groom each other as well; we are always going into the hair salon or barber shop to get our hair cut and groomed.This is a friendly contact between individuals just as is seen between chimpanzees. We have all been on a situation in which a gesture, without any verbal communication, can mean a thousand words. Look at the pictures below to see just how similar the touches between chimpanzees are to touches between humans


The similarity in gestures between us humans and chimpanzees can also be seen in such gestures that do not involve bodily contact between individuals. In chimpanzees, when a lower ranking or subordinate individual (one who doesnít have much authority in the group) approaches a more dominant individual the chimp is crouched down, presents its rump, or holds out its hand.  Humans do some of these gestures as well. Watch a human as he or she approaches and individual of much greater authority; they will sometimes hunch their shoulders and push their head down and look up the other individual if they feel that they are below the other in status. This human behavior may be difficult to spot without close observation, however, the gesture of holding out a hand when approaching is very easy to see. Holding out a hand is a gesture that we humans commonly use when first meeting an individual or when greeting an individual of higher rank than ourselves in our workplace. More often than not, this gesture becomes a touch when the higher ranked individual shakes the hand that has been offered. As discussed above, this handshake can be viewed as a sign of reassurance.

We also show the same behaviors as chimpanzees when we are angry. When chimps are angry or upset they stand upright, wave their arms around, and throw rocks, and at times may scream to emphasize their bodily movements. Chimpanzeesí hair stands up on end when they are angry to make them appear larger than they actually are, this phenomenon is known as piloerection. Similar gestures are made when humans become upset or angry. When we become upset we usually do not sit quietly with our hands crossed in our lap. We tend to stand upright and raise our voice to a scream or yell all while making large gestures with our arms when we are angry, just like when chimpanzees show their anger.

Chimpanzees also exhibit small gestures simply by changing their facial expression to convey a message to another individual.  We also express our many of our feelings with facial expressions. Look at the pictures below to see how similar our expressions are to chimpanzee expressions!


Smile: Chimpanzees show their teeth in an expression that looks like a smile when nervous. Have you ever found yourself smiling a big toothy smile when nervous? 


Closed mouth grin: This expression is used to show submission.   Perhaps you have made or have seen someone else make this face when showing another individual that everything is alright and they wonít start any trouble.


Relaxed Open Mouth display: Can you remember making this face the last time that you laughed at a funny joke? This is used to show non aggression and is often used as a play face along with rhythmic breathing much like the expression made during human laughter.


Pout face: Does this face remind you of a face you or someone you know were upset begging for something? This face is made by chimpanzees after a threat, when begging for something, and when searching for their mothers.


It is amazing how gestures as small as changes in mouth position can give messages to others in both chimpanzee and human societies!


Message from CAC'ers

While we, the CAC team, were able to experience the great diversity of ways chimpanzees communicate, one of the most memorable experiences was being surrounded by amazingly powerful pant hoots.  We heard pant hoots multiple times before we would even see a chimpanzee.  It is awe inspiring to think that these calls we heard act like our human voices and that the surrounding groups knew both which group was calling and where that group was in relation to the other groups.  The CAC team also got to see a lot of one on one communication between chimpanzees firsthand. For instance, to get help from a group member one female chimpanzee with a thorn in her skin merely had to present the troublesome area to another chimp. The second chimp obligingly groomed the first to try to alleviate any problems he might have found.  The female could not get comfortable and kept Ďaskingí other chimps to see if they could help her.  She was very persistent and definitely determined to get the thorn removed!

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