Chimpanzee Play

As children and even adults, we humans love to play. Chimpanzees, being our closest relatives, are no different! Chimps use play to develop skills that will be required when they are older. The skills chimps obtain are not just social necessities, which aid in their interactions between other members of their group, they also develop life skills which help young chimpanzees to feed and defend themselves as adults. The similarity between ourselves and chimps in how we play is truly quite amazing!

Although adult chimps love to play, the majority of play behavior occurs in younger chimpanzees. When adults do play it is often with younger members of their group.  We do the same thing, especially with younger siblings who need our attention! Young chimpanzees love to rough house and wrestle with one another. Much like children love to play tag, young chimps also chase each other often resulting in some playful wrestling and rolling around on the ground. Chimps are excellent climbers and will chase each other up into the trees. This climbing is good practice for when they need to climb quickly into a tree to avoid a predator or another chimpanzee.

So when we play, what is something that we all usually do? We usually laugh if we are having a good time, right? Well, chimpanzees are no different! While chimps of all ages play, wrestle, and tickle each other, they make a sound called a “play-pant.” It is amusing to hear chimps play-panting because even if you had never heard it before, you would immediately recognize the sound as laughing. Even the expression on the face of the chimpanzee looks as though they are laughing and having a good time! Occasionally play can become too rough. This usually happens when young chimps are playing with older juveniles. If the youngster has had enough they call out as if they are screaming. Most likely mom won’t be too far away and comes running to the aid of her baby. She will then scoop up her baby and carry them away from the rough housing juvenile. We also see this in humans. Have you ever cried while playing with someone else because they were being unfair or they stole your toy? Most likely your mom came to settle the dispute.

Becoming an adult human or chimpanzee usually takes practice. Play as babies and adolescents (or teenagers) helps both of us develop skills that we will need to use when we reach adulthood. So really, play is like practice for when we are older!  Chimps play for practice all the time. Often times they will play with tools and practice using them, trying to act just like mom.  An example of this would be how they practice their termite fishing behavior. Even very young babies have been seen trying to poke into a termite mound with a stick, imitating what they see mom doing. With enough practice they will get it right eventually!  Babies also like to practice building nests up in trees. They have been witnessed bending branches back like mom, just not in quite the same organized fashion as her because that takes a little bit of practice too. 

Although wrestling and playing chase looks like just a fun game, it is actually good practice for when chimps become older. Due to their structured social organization of dominance and submissive adults, it is a good idea to be able to fight or run when they get older. These skills also help them when hunting because of the intense running and climbing they do in order to catch their prey.  If they do not become the dominant adult in the group when they are older they also need these climbing and running skills to avoid more dominant individuals of the group that may not be nice to them. It’s all part of being a chimp!

A more recent development in the research of chimps has categorized them as even more similar to us! A study of wild chimpanzees has shown them to play with objects like a human child plays with toys. This is especially similar to little girls playing with dolls. Young female chimps have seen playing with objects much like we play with dolls, pretending like they are our babies.  They carry these objects on their backs much like an adult female carries her baby on her back. These “toys” range from rocks to pieces of pottery that young females find. Much like little girls play with dolls, playing with objects in this way helps young females develop mothering skills for when they have offspring of their own. Of course it doesn’t always have to be objects that they play-mother with, they can also practice with their own younger siblings. Young female chimps have been seen “borrowing” their baby brother or sister to hold and carry. Again, this is great practice for when they have babies of their own.

Just as little boys and girls play differently, so too do young male and female chimps. While young females practice being a mother, young males practice being big and tough! This is similar to us in that little boys tend to play with toy guns, spears and various other sorts of weapons. Young male chimpanzees also play with objects much like they are weapons. They have been seen throwing rocks, ripping up plants and throwing sticks like spears. Older male chimpanzees also do this but in a much more aggressive and intimidating way. Young males practicing this early have a good chance of creating a really great dominance display when they get older. Having an impressive dominance display could potentially help a male gain a higher rank in society so it is important for them to practice!

Becoming an adult, whether you are a chimpanzee or a human, takes practice. These skills are often improved over many years through the act of playing.  Being social creatures, play helps both of us learn how to interact with other individuals in our groups or society. Play not only develops social skills, but also skills necessary for survival as an adult. These skills include termite fishing, climbing, mothering and even fighting. All of these things cannot be done without first practicing them and play helps to improve these skills while having fun, something that appeals to both chimp and human. Play builds confidence in young chimps as well as humans which help us to become self-assured mature adults. Don’t become too mature though, you still need to play with a younger generation!


Message from CAC'ers


In fact, we got to see this exact behavior in Gombe when a young female walked in front of us with a piece broken clay pot on her back (top of page).  Even though we were only in Africa for a short time it was great to see the young chimps growing up and practicing to be adults.



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