CHIMPANZEES have demonstrated yet another close similarity to their human cousins. Young female chimps learn skills earlier, spend more time studying and tend to do better than young male chimpanzees â€” at least when it comes to catching termites.
US scientists spent four years at Gombe in Tanzania watching chimp families make flexible tools out of leaves and stems, insert them into termite mounds and then fish out the creatures to eat.
â€œWe found there are distinct, sex-based differences akin to those found in human children, in the way in which young chimpanzees develop their termite fishing skills,â€ they report in Nature today(April 15).
Human girls notoriously outperform boys at school ; for a while at least. If the chimpanzee study is any guide, this sex difference could date back to five or six million years ago when humans and chimps diverged from a common ancestor.
Elizabeth Lonsdorf, the director of field conservation at Lincoln Park Zoo, in Chicago, videotaped 14 chimps under the age of 11 and their mothers.
She recorded how old the three females and three males were when they successfully caught their first termites with sticks, palm fronds or grass. On average, females began extracting termites with tools at 31 months, while the males managed to fork out their first white ants at 58 months.
The females paid closer attention to the techniques demonstrated by their mothers, and copied them almost exactly. Once they had acquired the skill the females also fished more often and caught more termites each time.
Dr Lonsdorf and two colleagues from the University of Minnesota report that mothers showed no preference when it came to instruction. The difference lay in how the youngsters attended to these lessons.
Young males spent more time playing and swinging around, while daughters attentively copied their mothersâ€™ fishing techniques, learning whether to push the termite catcher partly into the mound, or fully, to increase the catch each time. They suggested the gender differences may be related to the protein sources available to young chimpanzees.
â€œThey can fish for termites or hunt colobus monkeys,â€ Dr Lonsdorf said. Mature males often hunt monkeys up in trees, but females are almost always either pregnant or burdened with a clinging infant. This makes hunting difficult.
But termites are a rich source of protein and fat. Females can fish for termites and watch their offspring at the same time. Adult females spend more time fishing for termites than males do. The young of both sexes seem to pursue activities related to their adult sex roles at a very young age.â€
Chimpanzees share more than 98% of their DNA with humans, and have demonstrated their intelligence by assembling numbers in the correct order, building complex sentences and even by inventing ways to thicken food.
Female chimps learn faster than the male