Scientists have discovered that chimpanzees use ancient military tactics to make decisions and avoid potentially fatal clashes with rival groups.
The researchers looked at two western chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) communities in Africa climb hills to conduct surveillance on each other, much like reconnaissance missions used by the military. They then used that intel to decide when to enter contested territory.
Many animals pay attention to dangers in their environment, but this is the first time scientists have documented that a nonhuman species carefully uses high terrain to assess risk in a territorial conflict, according to new research published Nov. 2. the magazine PLOS Biology.
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“It really shows this metacognitive ability, so the ability to reflect on your own knowledge and act on unfamiliar things to get more information,” the lead author. Sylvain LemoineAn assistant professor of biological anthropology at the University of Cambridge told Live Science.
The use of high ground is one of the oldest military tactics of human warfare, according to a statement issued by the University of Cambridge.
Chimpanzees live in communities that compete for space and resources, and their normal behavior involves systematic aggression — including accidental killings.
The boundary between chimpanzee communities is not rigid, and their daily presence in an area is important, Lemoine said, adding that it is like living in a “permanent, low-intensity, small-scale war situation.”
The new study looked at two neighboring chimpanzee communities that were monitored in 2009 Taï Chimpanzee Project, a research and conservation program based in the Tay National Park in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The team, along with students and local assistants, who were not named in the study, tracked the chimpanzees for eight to 12 hours a day between 2013 and 2016, collecting GPS and behavioral data.
The data showed that chimpanzees climb hills more often when traveling to the borders of their territory than to the center. While on these hills, they rested quietly rather than engaging in activities that would interfere with their ability to hear, the study said.
The chimpanzees in the study were more likely to advance from high ground to contested territory when their rivals were far away, suggesting they used the hills to avoid conflict. However, they can also use them to find an opportunity to attack. Lemoine noted that when members of two communities meet, the balance of power — the numbers on each side — is an important factor in whether one side will escalate the violence. Chimpanzees seem to be able to weigh the cost and benefit of engagement, and hills help them do this.
“They use high ground to find the right conditions where they can take a risk or not attack,” Lemoine said.
The new study only looked at chimpanzees in Tai National Park, but Lemoine told Live Science that he suspects other chimpanzees also use this tactic, depending on the location.
In a statement, Lemony said that the sophisticated cognitive abilities that help chimpanzees expand their territory would have been favored by natural selection, suggesting that this warfare tactic is rooted in evolution. “We’re probably seeing small-scale pre-war traces of what may have been prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations,” he said.
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