What Can We Learn from Chimps and GPS?

What Can We Learn from Chimps and GPS?

Should you ever take a stroll through the jungle and lose your way, don’t panic!  Just follow the chimp.  Although GPS technology is involved to some extent, newly conducted research suggests that chimpanzees mentally store a geometric reading of their home range, going from point to point almost in straight lines.

Chimps Have Built-in GPS

Christophe Boesch, a primatologist from Leipzig’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, remarks that even though the research team utilized GPS devices and compasses to keep up with chimps in the forest, the animals seem to have a good idea of where they are going on their own.  With the help of GPS technology, he and associate Emmanuaelle Normand tracked the movement of 15 chimps over 217 days in Cote d’Ivoire’s Tai National Park.   Boesch says the animals are nomadic, as a single chimp might visit 15 of the approximately 12,000 trees in the 17-square kilometer range.

GPS: A Perfect Science Companion

Every morning, researchers tracked a chimp throughout the park until it fell asleep at the end of the day, usually in a different nest.  Researchers recorded the chimps’ GPS position once per minute.  Boesch says that they were able to conduct the study because new GPS technology works nearly perfect in the tropical forest, which was definitely not the case a few years ago.  After analyzing all the data, Boesch and Normand discovered good evidence that the chimps selected their routes by utilizing a mental map based around geometric coordinates, rather than a navigation system based on landmarks for well traveled routes.  While swinging from tree to tree, individual chimps tended to travel in straight lines, only slowing down once nearing their destination. Boesch also says they visited trees from an angle based on current location.  This all suggests that chimpanzees do not rely solely on landmarks, such as certain trees and streams, in order to navigate.  These markers just may aid the chimp once it nears its destination.

How Would You Navigate without Landmarks?

Everyday experience and research from years past suggest that humans also utilize both forms of navigation depending on their environment.  In the city, we rely on roads, which act as our classical landmarks.  However, if you are an Eskimo in the Arctic or a Pygmy in the tropical rainforest, areas in which such landmarks are virtually non-existent, you would have to find your way using more sophisticated means.

Paul Garber, a biological anthropologist from the University of Illinois, believes that point-to-point distance probably is not the only factor involved in a chimp’s choice of route.  According to Garber, quality and quantity of food, as well as competition, might also play a role in their route choice.   In addition, like the traveling salesman who tends to optimize his travels, chimps could be thinking about their navigation path with an eye to the future.  Garber says that they might not just be planning one step in a route, but several steps ahead for later travels.

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