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To drum or not to drum: Selectivity in tree buttress drumming by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) in the Nimba Mountains, Guinea.

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Willems, Erik P 
Gaspard Soumah, Aly 
Matsuzawa, Tetsuro 
Koops, Kathelijne 


Chimpanzees live in fission-fusion social organizations, which means that party size, composition, and spatial distribution are constantly in flux. Moreover, chimpanzees use a remarkably extensive repertoire of vocal and nonvocal forms of communication, thought to help convey information in such a socially and spatially dynamic setting. One proposed form of nonvocal communication in chimpanzees is buttress drumming, in which an individual hits a tree buttress with its hands and/or feet, thereby producing a low-frequency acoustic signal. It is often presumed that this behavior functions to communicate over long distances and is, therefore, goal-oriented. If so, we would expect chimpanzees to exhibit selectivity in the choice of trees and buttresses used in buttress drumming. Selectivity is a key attribute of many other goal-directed chimpanzee behaviors, such as nut-cracking and ant dipping. Here, we investigate whether chimpanzees at the Seringbara study site in the Nimba Mountains, Guinea, West Africa, show selectivity in their buttress drumming behavior. Our results indicate that Seringbara chimpanzees are more likely to use larger trees and select buttresses that are thinner and have a greater surface area. These findings imply that tree buttress drumming is not a random act, but rather goal-oriented and requires knowledge of suitable trees and buttresses. Our results also point to long-distance communication as a probable function of buttress drumming based on selectivity for buttress characteristics likely to impact sound propagation. This study provides a foundation for further assessing the cognitive underpinnings and functions of buttress drumming in wild chimpanzees.


Funder: Stichting Lucie Burgers; Id:

Funder: Newnham College, University of Cambridge; Id:

Funder: Gates Cambridge Trust; Id:

Funder: Homerton College, University of Cambridge; Id:


behavioral selectivity, buttress drumming, long-distance communication, western chimpanzees, Africa, Western, Animals, Guinea, Pan troglodytes, Trees

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Am J Primatol

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Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (#07102010, #12002009, #16002001, #16H06283, #20002001, #24000001, Core‐to‐core CCSN, Leading Graduate Program‐U04‐PWS)