Chimpanzees Show No Fear When Dealing With Wildfires
Chimpanzees are recognized as close primate cousins of humans. Recent findings—published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology—show that these loveable primates may have developed another human-like trait: the ability to predict wildfire movement and how to react accordingly.
Jill Pruetz, a primatologist of Iowa State University, believes this development may help scientists gain better understanding of our primitive ancestors and how or when they first learned to control fire. Puertz was spending time in Senegal in 2006, observing savanna chimpanzees in the area. It was the end of the dry season at the time, and locals were setting wildfires as part of an annual tradition to clear land and help with hunting. The chimpanzees’ home range is also burned to some extent during this time.
Normally, when a wild animal comes in contact with fire, they panic. The chimpanzees, however, responded to the fire in a quite remarkable way: instead of becoming stressed or afraid, they simply moved calmly away from the fire as it approached them. The ability to recognize fire and react appropriately to it is the first of 3 steps in gaining human-like control over the blazing hot element. The full 3 stages are as follows:
- The ability to understand the behavior of fire under various conditions, which allows one to predict the path of the flames and how to react accordingly.
- The ability to control fire by containing it, fueling it or extinguishing it.
- The ability to start a fire.
One interesting thing that Puertz noted was that the chimpanzees created a type of “fire dance”.
“Males display all the time for a number of different reasons, but when there’s a big thunderstorm approaching, they do this real exaggerated display—it’s almost like slow motion. And when I was with this one party of chimps, the dominant male did the same sort of thing, but it was towards the fire, so I call it the fire dance.”…”The other interesting thing was that I heard a vocalization that I never heard before and I’ve never heard since. It was kind of ‘wraah-bark’ most likely given by the alpha male.”
While the primates certainly have a greater understanding of fire than we originally thought, Puertz does not see them starting or controlling their own fires any time soon.
The Common Chimpanzee and the closely related Bonobo are endangered species. You can help them by becoming a Chimp Guardian. This program is hosted by the Jane Goodall Institute and helps provide care and protection for dozens of orphaned chimpanzees.
By Heidi Marshall