Uncovering the Secrets of Chimpanzee Communication

I have spent the past five years studying how chimpanzees communicate with one another. In doing so, I often find myself in situations where, for months on end, I spend more time with chimps than I do with people. While this might make for a somewhat unusual lifestyle, it will hopefully reap dividends in better understanding the subtleties of their communication behavior.

I recently completed one such stint- five months studying the wild chimpanzees of Gombe National Park, the site made famous by the pioneering studies of Jane Goodall in the 1960’s. During my time there I got to catch up on the lives of 10 adult male chimpanzees who, unbeknownst to them, are the stars of my dissertation research. (Get to know them yourself.)

My days were spent side by side with these animals, collecting systematic data on their foraging, social and communicative behaviors and recording their vocalizations. Spending months with the same animals, I really got a feel for what being a chimpanzee is all about. Heck, I felt like one myself much of the time, jumping out of the way of the alpha male’s dominance displays, using vines to navigate up and down steep slopes, and crawling through places I never would have considered going under more typical circumstances. (Catch up on my adventures.)

Lisa O'Bryan recording the vocalizations of wild chimpanzees (Photo by Dr. Michael Wilson)
Lisa O’Bryan recording the vocalizations of wild chimpanzees (Photo by Dr. Michael Wilson)

The focus of all this blood, sweat, and yes even tears, is one humble grunt (the “rough-grunt”), a call that chimpanzees sometimes produce when they come across food. While not the most charismatic of chimpanzee calls, it offers a unique opportunity to explore the inner workings of their communicative abilities.

Chimpanzees often make different-sounding grunts to different types of food and, when hearing these calls, listeners appear to gain some information about the food that was discovered. Thus, these calls may be functioning in a way similar to human language–informing others about the environment around them rather than simply announcing how the animal is feeling.

Hear two different bouts of rough-grunts from opposite ends of the sound spectrum rough-grunt 1, rough-grunts 2

Many of the early studies of chimp vocalizations were conducted in captivity where the foraging and social environments are much less complex than those in which chimpanzees evolved. So, in 2009 I initiated fieldwork in Africa so that I could learn more about the calling behavior of wild chimpanzees and how it fits into their natural way of life. Data from this work will enable me to further examine the extent to which these calls do (or don’t) resemble language and explore their significance within chimpanzee society.

Having just completed the last of the fieldwork planned for this project (14 months total), I am now beginning a new stage of existence: making sense of piles of data. While certainly not as glamorous as hanging out with chimps all day, it is the heart of what I do as a scientist and the motivation behind all of my recent adventures. Plus, while this work will begin to answer some of my questions, it will likely raise even more, and I can’t wait to see where they take me next.

MORE: Read All Lisa O’Bryan’s Blog Posts From the Field


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Meet the Author
Lisa O’Bryan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation research focuses on the function of chimpanzee food-associated calling behavior. She is currently conducting fieldwork at Gombe National Park through the end of May 2013.