Published online 15 April 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040412-6


Girl chimps learn faster than boys

Daughters pick up their mother's skills, while sons play rough and tumble.

Food for thought: clever chimps get the best snacks.Food for thought: clever chimps get the best snacks.©

Young female chimpanzees are better students than males, at least when it comes to catching termites, according to a study of wild chimps in Tanzania's Gombe National Park. While daughters watch their mothers closely, the boys spend more time monkeying around.

The discovery mirrors differences in the learning abilities of human children, says the research team behind the study. Girls tend to catch on faster than boys when learning skills such as writing and drawing, they say.

These manual tasks are not dissimilar to the chimps' technique of using a stick to fish for termites, argues Elizabeth Lonsdorf, now at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Successfully extracting termites from their nest requires a dextrous turn of hand, she says.

Lonsdorf's team watched eight young males and six young females who accompanied their mothers to termite nests. Female youngsters enjoyed more success than males in catching termites. They also started younger: females picked up the skill at around 30 months of age, whereas males were usually twice as old as that, the team reports in this week's Nature1.

Thrills and spills

The difference is down to greater attentiveness on the females' part, the authors say. Females spent more time watching their mothers and their technique resembled their mother's more closely, even in the depths to which they inserted the stick. "Whatever pattern a mother showed, her daughter matched it almost exactly," says Lonsdorf.

Males were more easily distracted, choosing to spend their time swinging in trees, turning somersaults and wrestling with each other, says Lonsdorf. This failure to pay attention is reflected in their poor termite hauls, the researchers say.

The males are not necessarily wasting their time, says Andrew Whiten, a chimpanzee expert at the University of St Andrews, UK. While termites are a valuable food for females, males often catch larger animals such as monkeys. Their rough-and-tumble play may be a way to hone their hunting skills, Whiten suggests.

Females, who often have youngsters in tow, tend to stick to termites as a safer alternative to the thrill of the hunt, says Whiten. "[Hunting] is a very vigorous, dangerous activity in the treetops; it is difficult for females to do," he says.

The young males' antics may also shape future social interactions, Whiten suggests. Playful wrestling bouts may be a way to form alliances or establish hierarchies.

The fact that female chimps catch on quicker than males suggests that young girls' superiority over boys in the classroom may date back at least to the last common ancestor of chimps and humans, Lonsdorf and her colleagues argue.

Watching mother to learn how to catch termites is not exactly the same thing as listening to a teacher to learn reading, writing and arithmetic, Lonsdorf concedes. But the study adds to evidence that sex differences in learning exist outside humans, she says.

Her team's findings show that the stereotype of conscientious girls and unruly boys may extend far beyond the playground. 

  • References

    1. Lonsdorf, E. V., Eberly, L. E. & Pusey, A. E. . Nature, 428, 715 - 716, doi:10.1038/428715a (2004).  | Article | ChemPort |