03/22/2013 08:45 am ET

Chimp Teamwork Study Probes Evolutionary Roots Of Cooperation

Teamwork is a hallmark of the human species, but a new study shows we're not the only ones to cooperate. Chimpanzees team up to help each other to achieve a common goal, according to a new study in Biology Letters.

Chimps in the wild cooperate on straightforward things like hunting, but it wasn't clear before this research that the apes have the cognitive power to tackle more complex challenges.

"Do they really understand that they need to coordinate different roles and act together to succeed," asked lead author Dr. Alicia Melis, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Warwick in England. "Or are they just simultaneously but independently following the same prey?"

To answer these questions, Dr. Melis and co-author Dr. Michael Tomasello, a comparative psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, conducted an experiment with 12 chimps at a sanctuary in Kenya.

Two chimps were placed in adjoining rooms, with a box in the middle containing grapes. One of the chimps was given two sticks of different shapes. To get the grapes, the chimp with the sticks had to pass the correct one to its partner, and the two had to use their respective sticks in concert.

Ten out of 12 chimps figured out that they needed to pass one of the sticks to their partner. Nearly three quarters of the time, the chimpanzees even chose the correct one, according to a written statement issued by the University of Warwick.

If the research reveals something about apes, it also got Dr. Melis thinking about human cooperation:

We find that the major difference between chimp and human cooperation appears to be in chimpanzees’ low motivation to do things with others and not in their cognitive limitations (although there are certainly still many). However, in this study, once the chimpanzees understood that they themselves were going to profit by helping the partner, they did it. Maybe this could be applied to some situations in our human world in which people may not be willing to help others until they understand how helping others may ultimately help themselves.

Since chimps and humans both evolved the ability to work in teams, subsequent research may be able to teach scientists about our common ancestors. But first, Melis says, we'll need more evidence from other closely related primates, such as bonobos.