Researchers have found that chimpanzees in the wild have personalities akin to those of humans, confirming Jane Goodall’s own findings.
A touching moment between Jane Goodall and a young chimp in 1964
The now-83-year-old Goodall may just be having one of the best years of her life. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Goodall began describing the chimps she was studying as playful, nurturing, affectionate, or aggressive. Other scientists at the time, according to Goodall, were “horrified” at her claims. They said that she was anthropomorphizing--ascribing human traits to something non-human--the chimps, which went against the grain of scientific research. Other scientists also considered Goodall to be an amateur at the time, since she didn’t have her PhD yet then.
Vindication came decades later, however. A new study not only confirmed Goodall’s findings, but also found that chimpanzee personalities, like those of humans, are stable over time. While these findings are certainly significant, they can also help us understand how human temperaments evolved.
David Greybeard, the first chimp to have trusted Goodall. He was said to have been kind and gentle.
In 1973, researcher Peter Buirski, with Goodall’s blessing, had gone to Gombe as well to add onto the personality research. With the help of a questionnaire, Buirski’s research profiled the personalities of 24 Gombe chimps based on 10 different behavioral traits. According to this team’s findings, male and female chimps tend to differ in personalities.
More recently, Alexander Weiss and his team of researchers set off to study the wild chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, where Goodall also conducted her research. “Studying personalities in zoos has its advantages,” says Weiss, “but if you want to ask questions about something like [whether] personality is related to reproductive success… you can’t address these questions in captive samples. You have to go out to the wild.”
Gremlin, a major matriarch in Gombe. She apparently had strong motherly instincts, even at the age of 10.
Weiss and his team’s research has added 104 more individuals to the previous 24, all from Gombe, using an updated behavioral questionnaire. The researchers asked Gombe field assistants, some of whom had been working at the park for over three decades, to rate the personalities of the 128 chimps. The 11,000 survey responses amounted to up to 11,000.
The team then compared their findings with the findings from 1973. They found that the results from both studies were largely consistent.
Frodo, once the largest chimp in Gombe. He was known to be a bully and was quite unpopular.
The consistency between the two sets of findings indicate that not only do chimpanzees indeed have personalities, these personalities also remain largely unchanged over time. Also, the findings show that the personalities of wild chimpanzees are similar to those of captive chimpanzees.
Goodall, though her peers had doubted her earlier research on chimpanzee personalities, is not surprised. “I honestly don’t think you can be close to any animals and not realize their very vivid personalities,” she says. Other scientists, especially those who study the personalities of animals such as dogs, are warm to the idea. Studying chimpanzees in the wild also give more evidence to how similar these animals are to humans.
Weiss and his team have released their work fully to the public, in hopes that it could help other scientists with their own research. Goodall herself is also reportedly happy that there is still scientific interest in the Gombe chimpanzees.
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