London: Looking for help from a chimp? Don’t forget to use the word ‘please’ in the request.
According to a new study, captive chimpanzees willingly help others obtain an out-of-reach snack, but only if they beg for it.
In the science world, it has long been debated whether chimpanzees act altruistically. In the wild, the great apes exchange grooming duties, and occasionally food such as meat, but whether these transactions fit the definition of altruism is controversial, reports New Scientist.
"It is difficult to evaluate the cost and benefit of behaviours in the wild and actually impossible to control the situations, and therefore it is disputable to say that it is altruistic behaviour," says Shinya Yamamoto, a primatologist at the Kyoto University in Japan, who led the new study.
However, studies including captive chimps found little consistent evidence for altruism.
One problem with many of these studies is that they rely on sharing food – – something chimps do with reluctance.
To solve this, Yamamoto''s team designed a special chamber with two booths, connected by a small, open window.
In one test, one booth contained a large stick, the other an out-of-reach carton of juice. In another, one booth held a straw, the other a carton of juice with a tiny opening. The only way to obtain the juice was to use the tool from the other booth.
In dozens of trials involving six pairs of chimpanzees, one of the chimps consistently offered the tool to the other. But help often came only after the chimp in need reached out its hands or made a ruckus.
"This is a great illustration of helping behaviour in chimpanzees," says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University.
"Until now most research in this area was guided by the question whether the behaviour is selfish or altruistic, but a more interesting question is when is help provided and how intentional does it seem,” the expert added.
First Published: Wednesday, October 14, 2009, 21:40