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.

Related Article: The Profound Intelligence and Intuition of Elephants

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.

Related Article: A Group of Prominent Scientists Agree; Animals are just as Conscious as Us

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.

Related Article: Birds Recognize and Mourn Their Dead

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.

Related Article: Sensitive Plant Can Move, Learn and Remember

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.



Dolphins Exhibit Unending Compassion


Morality in animals is surprisingly common. Animals of all shapes and sizes have been documented exhibiting moral decision making and selflessness, even when faced with the prospect of pain or even death. As each day passes, studies continue to be released that reveal the profound intelligence and intuition of animals, and the fact that a multitude of species are just as conscious as human beings. While some species of animals are seen mourning their dead or protecting their young, others are seen desperately trying to save the life of other members of their species.  Once such animal that exhibits this behavior is the dolphin.

There are dozens of documented cases of dolphins rescuing humans, but for the first time researchers have witnessed an entire group of dolphins attempting to save another dying dolphin. The observation documents a very unusual case of care giving behavior between bottleneck dolphins. Korean scientists saw the attempted rescue take place off the coast of Ulsan, South Korea and were amazed by what they witnessed.

While researchers were documenting a group of more than 500 dolphins they noticed a separate, smaller group of about 12 dolphins swimming very slowly and acting abnormally on the surface of the water.  They realized that the group was attempting to save the life of one of their companions. The injured dolphin seemed to have paralyzed fins and red marks on its abdomen.  Individual dolphins kept the injured dolphin afloat by pushing its body upwards while a group of 10 or so dolphins formed a living raft as support.

Five dolphins at a time lined up horizontally into a raft-like formation, maintaining it while the stricken dolphin moved on top and rode on their backs. One of the dolphins in the raft even flipped over its body to better support the ailing dolphin above, while another used its beak to try to keep the dying dolphin’s head up. A few minutes later the stricken dolphin appeared to die, its body hanging vertically in the water, with its head above the surface. It wasn’t breathing.

Even after the injured dolphin died its companions continued to blow bubbles into it as if attempting resuscitation. Other members of the group rubbed and touched the dead dolphin’s body in seeming distress.

It is well known that dolphins are an incredibly intelligent and self-aware species.  Not only do they fully recognize themselves and make faces in the mirror, they have also been observed asking for help from human divers while injured. Dolphins have also been seen regularly using sponges as tools while foraging, which is believed to have originated from a single spontaneous innovation (their version of the wheel) and has spread to subsequent generations for the last 100 years or more.  They are additionally a very community driven species, forming gangs, tribes, and alliances that guard females against other tribes.  The varying tribes have frequently been seen persuading other tribes to end old alliances and form new ones.  These groups form the social foundation of dolphin society.

One of the most incredible aspects of dolphin intelligence is that despite humans not understanding their complex language, dolphins have an unparalleled comprehension of human language, even our syntax. They are natural chatters, engaging in communication with several different species other than humans.

Dolphins are incredibly self aware beings that deserve greater recognition and compassion- they certainly don’t mind sharing their compassion with us.




Wondergressive: Morality in Animals

Wondergressive: The Profound Intelligence and Intuition of Elephants

Wondergressive: Animals are Just as Conscious as Us

Wondergressive: Birds Mourn Their Dead

BBC Nature: Dolphins Try to Save Dying Companion

Marine Mammal Science: An Unusual Case of Care Giving Behavior

Understand Dolphin: Brain and Intelligence 

Youtube: Dolphins Looking into Mirrors

Huffington Post: Divers Rescue Dolphin After it Asks for Help

Dolphin Gangs

io9: Biologists and Dolphins Have Created the First Interspecies Language 

Science Direct: SETI Meets a Social Intelligence

Save The Whales: Cases of Dolphins Rescuing Humans