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Science!: Ants and Monkeys

Lauren Admire | 28 Dec 2009 21:00
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Monkeys Dance With Fire

Imagine you're being chased by a pack of angry hyenas. Lightning strikes a tree next to you, and you quickly construct a makeshift lantern to wave at the oncoming horde to scare them away. The hyenas will likely run away in terror, but if it were, say, a pack of angry, rabid chimps, you may not be so lucky.

As it turns out, chimps may have a finer understanding of fire than we originally believed. Primatologist Jill Pruetz was the first to notice how chimps reacted to wildfires. When people set fires to clear the land, the monkeys didn't run away in fear. "It was the end of the dry season, so the fires burn so hot and burn up trees really fast, and they were so calm about it," Pruetz states.

Primitive humans conquered their fear of fire in three easy steps: first, they learned how it behaves, then they began to control it, and then they figured out how to start one. Most animals fail the first step - they just turn tail and run. But not chimps. Chimps watched the fire and moved when it spread too closely to them. This minimized the amount of energy they expended in order to keep safe. Running in terror may be a vital instinct, but it burns a lot of energy, and quickly. Pruitz also found that the males of the chimps did a "fire dance," making distinct noises when the fire approached.

Does this mean that chimps understand the behavior of fire? Are they taking the first steps towards mastery and control of it, similar to our own evolution?

Source: Discover

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