Animal Cognition

, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 36–46 | Cite as

What is the role of mothers in the acquisition of termite-fishing behaviors in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii)?

  • Elizabeth V. LonsdorfEmail author
Original Article


This paper explores the role of maternal influences on the acquisition of a tool-using task in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in order to build on and complement previous work done in captivity. Young chimpanzees show a long period of offspring dependency on mothers and it is during this period that offspring learn several important skills, especially how to and on what to forage. At Gombe National Park, one skill that is acquired during dependency is termite-fishing, a complex behavior that involves inserting a tool made from the surrounding vegetation into a termite mound and extracting the termites that attack and cling to the tool. All chimpanzees observed at Gombe have acquired the termite-fishing skill by the age of 5.5 years. Since the mother is the primary source of information throughout this time period, I investigated the influence of mothers' individual termite-fishing characteristics on their offsprings' speed of acquisition and proficiency at the skill once acquired. Mother's time spent alone or with maternal family members, which is highly correlated to time spent termite-fishing, was positively correlated to offspring's acquisition of critical elements of the skill. I also investigated the specific types of social interactions that occur between mothers and offspring at the termite mound and found that mothers are highly tolerant to offspring, even when the behavior of the offspring may disrupt the termite-fishing attempt. However, no active facilitation by mothers of offsprings' attempts were observed.


Chimpanzee Tool-use Mother-infant interactions Learning 



I thank A. Pusey, L. Eberly, J. Goodall and E. Lonsdorf for invaluable assistance during this study. S. Hirata and S. Ross and three anonymous reviewers provided careful critiques of earlier versions of the text. I thank the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), especially the JGI Center for Primate Studies, the Gombe Stream Research Centre, the Gombe National Park staff, the Government of Tanzania, Tanzania National Parks, Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology and Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute for valuable support with carrying out this research. Kadahaa John, Shadrack Kamenya and Anthony Collins provided essential assistance with field collection of data. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the University of Minnesota Graduate School. All research performed for this study complied with the relevant laws of Tanzania and the United States of America

Supplementary material

A youngster (left of screen) is seen interacting with her mother during a termite-fishing session. The youngster repeatedly attempts to steal termites from her mother's tool, which her mother tries to avoid (a negative response). Note that the mother makes no effort to facilitate the offsprings's actions


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology, Evolution and BehaviorUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  2. 2.Department of Conservation and Science Lincoln Park Zoo & Committee on Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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