Chimpanzee Intelligence: Photographic Memory, Communication, and Altruism

chimpanzee intelligence researcher

Chimpanzee intelligence is shedding light on our own intelligence.

A recent study on chimpanzee intelligence has revealed that chimpanzees use and dynamically modify intentional hand gestures to communicate, cooperate, and achieve specific goals. The study is part of a larger research project on chimpanzee intelligence led by Dr. Charles Menzel of Georgia State University.

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chimpanzee intelligence lexigrams

These symbols, called lexigrams, are what Chimpanzees use to communicate.

The participants in the study consisted of two chimps named Panzee (19 year old female) and Sherman (31 year old male), along with a researcher from Menzel’s team. Both chimps were raised by human parents and have been involved in research projects involving language learning, memory, and numerical understanding at some point in their lives. Lexigrams, abstract symbols that represent words (similar to Chinese characters) are a regular part of the chimpanzees’ lives, and are regularly used to communicate with humans.

The study required that the chimpanzees cooperate with one another, along with a human researcher, to find food. The food was hidden at various distances and locations relative to the starting point of the chimpanzees. Instead of the chimps trying to find the food though, their task was to tell the researcher where to look. The researcher in the experiment had no idea where the food was hidden.

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To accomplish the task the researcher pointed at potential target locations and acted according to the chimpanzees’ feedback. This type of role reversal creates an intriguing scenario. According to Dr. Menzel,

The design of the experiment with the chimpanzee-as-director created new ways to study the primate. It allows the chimpanzees to communicate information in the manner of their choosing, but also requires them to initiate and to persist in communication.

chimpanzee intelligence hand gesture

Hand gestures like this one are used to communicate.

Essentially, this study on chimpanzee intelligence is a classic game of “hot-and-cold.” Panzee and Sherman used non-indicative hand gestures at a more rapid rate when the researcher was closer to the food. In the end, Panzee was able to find more food than Sherman because she elaborated her gestures relative to the researcher’s pointing. This is a landmark study in the field of chimpanzee intelligence as it is the first time chimpanzees have been shown to exhibit such flexibility with regards to communication and gestures. Dr. Menzel explains that,

Because of the openness of this paradigm, the findings illustrate the high level of intentionality chimpanzees are capable of, including their use of directional gestures. This study adds to our understanding of how well chimpanzees can remember and communicate about their environment.

The study is certainly amazing, but it’s not surprising. Chimpanzee intelligence is well documented.  They share many human behaviors and modes of reasoning. In some cases, chimpanzees have even been shown to markedly outsmart us.

Chimpanzees are exceptional at language acquisition and comprehension relative to other animals. Like Panzee and Sherman, many chimps have successfully been taught to use lexigrams as a form of communication, as well as sign language. A great example of exceptional chimpanzee intelligence is Washoe, a chimpanzee who learned 151 American Sign Language signs over the course of 51 months. A double blind test confirmed that Washoe did in fact learn, understand, and spontaneously use over 350 signs by the end of her life.

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Chimpanzee intelligence face

A male chimpanzee trolling his girlfriend, I assume.

Chimpanzee intelligence varies greatly, just like human intelligence. While Washoe learned to communicate with us, other chimpanzees just can’t seem to grasp what we consider language. Another chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky was thought to have learned sign language, but later tests revealed that his signs were merely trained responses. He did not actually understand what the sign meant relative to himself and the world at large.

Chimpanzees excel in their ability to remember. In fact, chimpanzees have a far greater memory than even the most powerful human minds on the planet. A 30 year study at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute revealed that chimpanzees can learn and remember the shape and value of the numbers 1 through 9.

Ayumu, a highly intelligent chimp, has the remarkable ability to use his aptitude for numbers to very easily accomplish a task that is seemingly impossible for humans. In the task, the numbers 1 through 9 are flashed onto a computer screen for less than a quarter of a second before disappearing. Ayumu is able to remember and correctly choose the areas where the numbers once were in ascending order. He can perform this incredible feat in mere seconds and can do it over, and over again, seemingly without any mental strain.  This could potentially represent a photographic memory.

Ben Pridmore, a world memory champion, failed the same test on most attempts. 

Other examples of chimpanzee intelligence include laughing for many of the same reasons humans do (including being tickled), creating and executing complex social hierarchies, making tools, strategizing during hunts, and using deception and manipulation to gain rank in society or attain rewards.  Additionally, they have been shown to spontaneously plan for future events.

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Chimpanzee intelligence goes even further in some cases as chimps have frequently been shown to act altruistically, sacrificing themselves for the greater good or engaging in helpful activity even when it is clear no reward will be won.

To top it all off, most of the time chimpanzees just want to have fun. Researchers have noted that chimpanzees often solve puzzles just for the thrill of it. I wonder how loyal of an ally a chimpanzee would be in an inter-species game of Risk…

chimpanzee intelligence chess

A chimpanzee imparting some age old wisdom to a little girl over a game of chess.



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