The amazing emotional intelligence of our primate cousins

Gorilla, Philadelphia Zoo. Photo: Richard Ricciardi via Flickr.
Gorilla, Philadelphia Zoo. Photo: Richard Ricciardi via Flickr.
Gorillas cooperating to dismantle poachers's snares, altruistic, food sharing chimpanzees, grieving lemurs performing death rituals ... Danielle Radin finds an extraordinary emotional depth and capacity for empathy in our fellow primates.
These new findings suggest a level of empathy and social welfare amongst primates never before studied.

In the wild, gorillas are turning into primitive engineers as the newest field findings show that some of these large primates have taught themselves how to dismantle poaching traps in Africa.

"It's just amazing", says Dr. Patricia Wright, a Primatologist at Stony Brook University in New York with over 27 years anthopological experience.

"One of the most extraordinary things that has just happened is that very young gorillas, that are just four years old, have started to take apart traps and snares so that poachers can't catch gorillas."

In Rwanda, four young gorillas were seen disabling a poachers' snare intended to kill gorillas and other animals. These gorillas sprung into action after the same snare killed an elderly gorilla.

Cognition, and empathy

Adult gorillas have been seen destroying snares and poaching traps in the past, but scientists have never seen this kind of activity in gorillas at such a young age. This sighting suggests not only unexpected cognitive skill but also a level of empathy for other animals.

While the gorillas could choose to simply avoid the snare grounds, they instead decide to work together to disable them so that other gorillas and animals are not hurt and killed.

Within the world of primatologists and researchers, primate empathy has been a matter of discussion for years. These new findings suggest a level of empathy and social welfare amongst primates never before studied.

The young gorillas dismantling the snares will most likely teach their offspring how to destroy traps as well. Primates, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, are known for teaching their young how to use different tools.

Chimpanzee altruists

"Young monkeys learn to use stones as tools to crack open the nuts they want to eat, which is something that the adults in their groups do", says Dorothy Fragaszy, Professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia and director of the Primate Behavior Laboratory.

"Social context helps the young monkeys to learn skills through the ways that others engineer the environment so that the young monkeys are able to learn.

"There are socially provided elements in the environment to help the young individual to be facilitated to perform the right actions and to practice this skill."

In an experiment at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center it was recently confirmed that chimpanzees exhibit pro-social behavior. Two chimps separated by a mesh fence were given the option to share food with the other chimp, or get the food just for themselves.

More than half the time both chimpanzees acted altruistically, sharing their food with the other. This confirms that they are aware of the social welfare of other chimpanzees - a fact that researchers only speculated about before but has now been confirmed.

Social and compassionate beings

These new findings suggest a level of empathy and social welfare amongst primates never before studied.

"Chimpanzees engage in a behavior called reassurance when other chimpanzees are stressed. They offer comfort the same way that a human shows comfort", says Mary Lee Jensvold, director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University.

Chimpanzees have also been known to show empathy for other species such as humans. The famous chimpanzee, Washoe, the first non-human we could communicate with, understand and speak approximately 350 words of American sign language before her death in 2007.

When one of her caretakers had a miscarriage she told Washoe. Washoe looked her in the eyes and signed "cry" running a finger down her caretaker's cheek. This kind of emotional depth shows the extent of primate mental capability.

Lemur rituals

Other primates exhibit emotional awareness differently. Lemurs - a primate found mostly in Madagascar - are not as intelligent as gorillas or chimpanzees, but have been known to partake in ritualistic behaviors when a member of their family dies.

"When a member is killed or dies it's a great tragedy for the whole family. They all mourn for days", says Wright. "I've seen lemurs come back to the place of death day after day."

This kind of ritual is similar to a human visiting a grave sight of a loved one, adds Wright.

"They have this long lost call that they give when somebody is lost in the forest and they want them to come back. They will all sit there over the body and ask them to come back, and of course they can't."

Lemurs are known for working and playing together in packs. The loss of a family member can affect them greatly. This kind of emotional awareness shows that even the lesser-intelligent species of primate are more like us than we once thought.

Koko the Gorilla, linguist

Research on primate empathy was kick started in the 1970's with Koko the gorilla - a gorilla that knows over 1,000 words of American Sign Language.

At first the scientific community was skeptical, not knowing if Koko was actually signing what she was thinking or if she was being coerced by her trainer, Penny Patterson.

After some time and research it was generally accepted that the words Koko was signing were in fact her own thoughts and feelings with no push towards in any particular direction from Patterson.

"After that initial bump in the road, the scientific community came around", says Wright. "As we've gotten to know other signing monkeys I think people are much more convinced. Her ability to communicate is much more accepted by the scientific community."

The peak of research with Koko came when Patterson decided to give her a pet kitten. Koko cared for the kitten, which she named 'All Ball', like a human would: petting it, being gentle around it, and scolding it when it bit her. Gorillas in the wild have been seen exhibiting similar maternal actions as humans.

Gorilla mothers

Researchers at the Free University of Berlin recently published a paper after a 4-month observation of gorilla mothers. It concluded that gorilla mothers use a non-verbal 'baby talk' when addressing their young ones.

The mothers would do this by adapting language to infants that was different from vocalizations made towards adults. The findings "indicate that gorillas employ a strategy of infant-specific communication", says the paper published in June.

Koko treated the kitten similarly to these gorilla mothers in the wild. One day All Ball got loose and got hit by a car. When Koko found out that her kitten died, she mourned for days, often crying (gorillas cannot shed tears, she would do this by letting out sad wails) when any mention of cats came up.

This gave Koko's caretakers the opportunity to ask her questions about death. "Where do gorillas go when they die?" Asked one caretaker. Koko replied, "Comfortable / hole / bye." The caretakers then asked, "How do gorillas feel when they die: happy, sad, afraid?" Koko answered, "Sleep".

Whether it is gorillas in the wild helping to dismantle traps, captive chimpanzees exhibiting altruistic behavior, or simple lemurs partaking in death rituals, it is obvious that primates have a remarkable mental and emotional depth.

And we humans are just now beginning to scratch the surface of their true abilities.



Danielle Radin has been a journalist for the last seven years covering everything from local government corruption to music reviews. She is the author of Writing the Rhetorical Essay (A Compilation of Academic Works).

Danielle graduated from the University of California Berkeley in three years with a double major and minor. She then went on to Stanford University where she received her Master's degree in Communication and Journalism. While at Stanford, Danielle gained a reputation as an animal aficionado, covering Sumatran tigers, primates and guide dogs. She has been an animal enthusiast since before she could remember and considers herself a novice ethologist, studying animal behavior in zoos and shelters. She also has a pet chinchilla named Babs.