Pest managers can learn a trick or two about termite inspections from a group of chimpanzees in the Congo Basin.
When pest managers test drill trees for a termite nest, a blade of grass is commonly inserted into the hole to check. If termites are present they grab onto the blade of grass and are visible when the blade is removed. Clever as we may think we are, it turns out that chimpanzees have been ‘termite fishing’ with far more sophisticated tools.
It has been known for a while that many populations of chimpanzees across Africa use a single tool to extract termites, much like pest managers. However, researchers from the University of Miami have discovered that chimpanzees in the Congo Basin use a far more sophisticated tool set.
Chimpanzees developed puncturing tools to break into the nests, and fishing probes to collect the termites. There are variations in their puncturing tools, with twigs being used to perforate the more fragile outer layers of arboreal nests, and more substantial sticks being required to puncture the hard casing of the in-ground nests. Tooling for the perforation of underground nests, which can be up to 50 cm underground, is only mastered by a few chimpanzees.
The chimpanzee selects pliable stems (much like the pest manager’s blade of grass) to insert into the hole and fish for termites. Incredibly one population of chimpanzees used their teeth to fray the ends of these probes to produce an end much like a paint brush. These frayed fishing rods were ten times more efficient at capturing termites – a tip for termite professionals!
The young chimpanzees must learn to use and make the tools, which involves selecting the appropriate vegetation from a suitable species and then modifying its shape to meet requirements. This often takes several years of learning. Some chimpanzees will learn to fish (using discarded or donated tools) before learning how to manufacturer tools.
Musgrave, S et al (2020). The ontogeny of termite gathering among chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle, Republic of Congo. American Journal of Physical Anthropology.