Chimpanzee Tool Use


Tool use was once a defining characteristic that was only attributed to humans. However, when Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees also use tools, we learned that we were no longer special in our tool using capabilities. Chimps all over Africa have been seen using a wide variety of tools for many different tasks. Think about some of the tools you use every day.  Are there tools we as humans use that are similar to those used by chimpanzees? Together we’ll discover some of the really creative ways chimpanzees use the objects around them to create tools.


Most of the tools that chimps make and use are actually geared towards eating. Just as human cultures use different utensils for food, so do different groups of chimps. Think about the utensils we humans use to eat our food. In Asian countries it is usual for chopsticks to be used, while in America forks and knives are common utensils. What do you eat with at your house? We and chimpanzees are both very similar in the ways we use and create tools for our benefit.


Jane Goodall first discovered chimpanzees using tools to capture termites, which were buried underground in sealed mounds of dirt called termite mounds. She noticed that they would use two different sticks as tools to acquire the protein rich insects.


The first thing chimps do is use a heavy stick to chisel a hole into the termite mound to find an opening. The second tool they use is much more refined than their chisel. The second stick is known as a fishing tool and it is very special because they actually modify it before using it. The chimpanzees find a straight stick or long blade of grass and pull all of the leaves off of it, so that they can easily fit the stick into the hole of the termite mound. Chimps are much better at termite fishing than we are. Jane Goodall herself tried her hand at termite fishing and couldn’t get nearly as many termites on the stick as the chimps she was watching did. Tool modification is extremely rare in the animal world which is yet another example of how chimps and humans are so similar.


In another group of chimps, different from the culture that Jane Goodall studied, there was a discovery of a hammer and anvil tool (top of page) being used to crack open hard nut shells. (An anvil is a hard surface that is used to place something on while it is hit with a hammer to crack it.) This is a perfect example of yet another similarity between chimps and us humans. What do you use to crack open nuts? We have all sorts of tools for nut cracking and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Chimps use different sized rocks as hammers to crush a hard nut on top of a larger rock, which is the anvil. 


Chimpanzees also use different tools in different areas to drink water from holes in trees. This water is often too deep for them to reach with their mouths so they must find other ways to access it. In some places chimps chew up leaves and spit them out to make an absorbent sponge which they then use to suck up the water. When they take it out of the tree it is full of water that can be easily sucked off of the sponge. Other chimps use tools like a straw to drink water from these holes. Chimpanzees are very creative when it comes to making tools for all sorts of jobs.


Chimpanzees also hunt for their food just like humans do.  Although we don’t hunt as much as we used to, there are still native people who use spears and bows and arrows to hunt for their meat. Chimps have been seen creating and using primitive spear-like tools to catch small nocturnal primates, which sleep in the holes of trees. Because these holes tend to be quite deep, chimps cannot simply reach their hands down into them to get their prey. These chimps have learned how to create sharp spears with their teeth, which they can then poke into these holes. The sticks are much longer than their arms and therefore they can reach their prey. 



Message from CAC'ers


When we were in Tanzania we saw many termite mounds that chimps termite fish at. Some of them even had left over tools that the chimps had used next to them! We got to look at these tools up close!




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