Chimp says 'take that drone and shove it'

Chimp downs drone
© Royal Burger's Zoo

Well she didn’t actually say it, but she did take a stick and swat a film crew’s drone right out of the sky. Snap!

The chimpanzee colony at the Royal Burgers Zoo in The Netherlands was founded in 1971 and has been notable for the zoo’s success in establishing a social group of considerable size and nearly natural composition. (As near as natural as can be for animals in captivity, that is. Which makes it pretty relative. But I digress.) The colony has become well-known for studies of social behavior that have taken place there.

Earlier this year a camera crew was preparing to shoot video of the chimps for a public relations documentary, and decided to use a camera mounted on a drone to get close-up footage. Oh what a tangled web we weave...

Before actually filming, a trial run was made; understandably, the appearance and noise of the drone caused excitement within the group. Some of them grabbed willow sticks, and four of them climbed scaffolding in the enclosure on the side where the what-is-this-crazy-flying-metal-animal-thing was hovering.

“At this stage the significance of what was happening was not obvious to the team,” writes Jan A. R. A. M. van Hooff, science supervisor for the zoo, in a recent article for the journal Primates.

And then, round two for the drone, this time with the camera rolling. The drone entered the enclosure airspace and closed in on two females, Tushi and Raimee, who had climbed the scaffolding. Tushi moved closer to the hovering drone.

“The operator of the drone had clearly underestimated the significance of the fact that both individuals had carried with them a long twig when they climbed the scaffolding. This is not a frequently observed behavior of these chimpanzees,” notes van Hooff.

When the drone came close, Tushi made two long sweeps with her branch, and wham, knocked the daylights out of it and broke the contraption. The camera continued filming from the ground and recorded the apes cautiously approaching the downed drone … poking it with short sticks, and finally handling it, dragging and throwing it, and then, like what happens to many a new hobbyist with a new toy, they simply lost interest in it.

While behaviorists are interested in the use of sticks/tools in a planned action – given that the lady chimps collected sticks and took them to the place where they anticipated the drone to return – it’s hard to ignore the significance of the motivation in the first place.

“There is a momentaneous grimace just before and during the act of striking. The face is tense, the teeth are bared, but there is no retraction of the mouth corners as in a 'fear' face, which would have suggested that it is an agonistically motivated reflex. The precise coincidence of the facial grimace with the strike suggests that it is a concomitant of an assertive and determined exertion of force,” writes van Hooff.

What’s amazing is that those chimps did exactly what most of us humans would do if a drone flew into our home and started buzzing right over our heads. Yes, tools and their deliberate use are a remarkable thing to see, but what’s more human than wanting to take a stick and swat down a humming, vexing nuisance? Hats off to Tushi for taking care of business.

Tags: Animals | Technology

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