Nut-Cracking Ape May Boost Gorillas' IQ Rep

October 25, 2005

Compared to other great apes—chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans—gorillas don't have a reputation for being the sharpest tools in the box.

But a young female gorilla that uses rocks to smash open nuts may help change that perception, say ape experts, who add that the find may also help shed light on the origins of complex tool use in humans.

Itebero, a two-and-a-half-year-old gorilla from Central Africa, was observed cracking palm nuts between two rocks.

It's the first report of complex tool-use in a gorilla, said Patrick Mehlman, a primatologist with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Confiscated from poachers, Itebero has been at the conservation group's gorilla sanctuary in Goma, in the eastern region of the Democractic Republic of the Congo.

Recently she began using a hammer-and-anvil technique to extract oil from palm nuts.

Mehlman says the lowland gorilla started cracking nuts spontaneously and wasn't influenced by humans. "We are unaware that any of her caretakers demonstrated this [behavior] to her," Mehlman noted.

Until recently experts thought that such premeditated use of stones and other tools among nonhuman primates was confined to chimpanzees and bonobos.

Higher Understanding

Gottfried Hohmann, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, says the finding indicates that gorillas have a higher level of understanding of their environment than previously thought.

Mehlman, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund primatologist, says the behavior also suggests that complex tool-use may not have originated in chimps and humans but may have evolved earlier in the primate family tree.

"What this suggests, along with relatively recent findings that some orangutans also use tools in the wild, is that tool use is not just a derived trait for chimpanzees and humans but is present in various degrees for all [living] great apes today, and may have been present in some form in our ape common ancestor," he said.

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