New Studies in Ape Communication

New Studies in Ape Communication

Many animal lovers, including myself, would love the opportunity to speak with animals. Any person who works with animals would probably agree that clear communication would make their jobs much easier. I often see exchanges between chimpanzees at Chimps Inc that make me very curious as to what they are telling each other. That is why these new developments on ape language skills are so exciting! By studying wild chimpanzees and bonobos, researchers have come up with a sort of ape dictionary for the group and decipher what the apes are saying to each other.

Two recent studies on wild Chimpanzee and Bonobo groups have allowed scientists to describe great ape communication in a new, previously unavailable detail. As chimpanzees and bonobos are physiologically incapable of making the same vocal sounds that make up human languages, these apes were at one time thought to lack a complex language system. Decades of studies on captive apes learning sign language proved that non-human apes are indeed capable of complex communication. One of these chimps, Washoe, even taught her surrogate son sign language, without interference from humans. Now, these two exciting new studies look at wild apes and have translated some of the combinations of gestures that make up complex communication systems in wild chimpanzees and bonobos.


Co-author of the chimpanzee study, Richard Byrne, says, “What we’ve shown is a very rich system of many different meanings. We have the closest thing to human language that you can see in nature.” Byyrne’s co-author, Catherine Hobaiter, spent 18 months observing chimpanzees in western Kenya and the result was the establishment of 36 gestures and 15 clear cut meanings.

These decoded gestures, could be used on their own, or strung together to form more complex messages, and the meanings stayed the same no matter which chimp was using them. Though this is a very rich communication system, there are still differences from human language communication.  Chimpanzee communication also does not include sentence structure. This does, however, support the theory that the cognitive capacities for complex language are rooted deep in primate evolution.


Emilie Genty and Klaus Zuberbühler’s study on bonobos focuses on one gesture in particular.

“Stretching an arm towards another bonobo, sweeping it inwards, then finishing with a wrist-twirl that turns a downward-facing palm upwards.”

The reason that this is such a fascinating gesture is that it is a complex gesture with compound meaning. This gesture is an invitation from one bonobo, for another to follow them to a more secluded location.

“The inwards sweep indicates the gesture’s object, and the hand-turn symbolizes the path to a private spot. The gesture is typically followed by a body-turn towards towards the intended path; the signaler then look backs, checking whether the message was received.”

This level of information conveyed through this gesture had never before been observed in non-human apes, so it is a very exciting prospect that holds promise for future studies such as a more complete


Kaleigh, volunteer

Scientists Translate Chimpanzee and Bonobo Gestures That Resemble Human Language
Chimp Sign Language ‘Dictionary’ Created