evolution and behavior: girls learn while boys play

Girl chimps learn faster than boy chimps, according to a new study with human parallels appearing in the April 15 Nature. Elizabeth Lonsdorf of the University of Minnesota and colleagues studied how young, wild chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania learned to use sticks to fish for termites, a rich source of protein. The researchers found distinct sex-based differences in the chimps, similar to the differences found in human boys and girls learning a new skill, such as writing. The girl chimps spent more time watching their mothers fishing than the boys, who spent most of their time “playing around the termite mound.” (Not that playing is bad; roughhousing may help them in typical adult-male activities, such as hunting.) But, by closely observing their mothers and copying their actions almost exactly, the girl chimps learned how to fish for termites much earlier than boys, and also caught more termites with each attempt. The researchers write that the study is the first systematic evidence of a difference between the sexes in the learning of a tool-use technique in chimps, and implies that sex-based learning differences may “date back at least to the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans.”

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 4/20/2004.
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