“A chimpanzee playing bongo drums to a crowd of other chimpanzees” . This image was generated using DALL-E Artifical Intelligence by Vikas Gudhe licensed under CC BY 4.0

Who’s your favorite drummer? Yeah, Ringo Starr was my first choice, but I think the chimpanzees are giving him a run for his money. Did you know that chimpanzees in Uganda drum on the roots of trees to communicate with other members in their group? These low-frequency drumming sounds can be heard well over a kilometer away!

Scientists have previously observed this phenomenon, but the reason why chimpanzees go bananas on the drums isn’t fully understood. Researchers Vesta Eleuteria, Matthew Hendersona, Adrian Soldatiab, Gal Badihia, Klaus Zuberbühleracd, and Catherine Hobaiter sought to understand the differences in the types of drumming and when they decided to drum. 

Interestingly, chimpanzees drum on large, wide “buttress” roots that keep shallow-rooted trees from falling over to communicate both location and identity. The scientists found that each individual chimpanzee has their own unique drumming sound (like a drum solo) and one that all the chimpanzees share. This likely means that the chimpanzees can decide whether or not to let their peers know who’s putting on the musical performance! The scientists were curious about these chimpanzee drumming habits, so they wanted to figure out the answer to two questions: Why are they drumming? And why would they want to play a sound that can be heard really far away but not let others know that they made the sound?

The chimpanzees were observed for 45 days from early morning to late afternoon while they were either feeding, displaying, resting, traveling, or doing “other” things. As the scientists recorded the chimpanzees’ behavior, they discovered that drumming occurred mostly when traveling and occasionally when displaying. Animals use displays to show their dominance over others, which is an important part of how they work together.  The scientists suggest that during travel, drumming may help chimpanzees perform “fission-fusion dynamics” – which simply means that as they split apart (fission), a member of the group can drum to identify themself and let other members know to come back together as a group (fusion)! 

Now finally, remember how I mentioned that they also occasionally drum during displays? Even though chimpanzees display to challenge and dominate, it’s bad news to try and assert dominance over other higher-ranking animals since they may try to challenge you. The scientists thought that when displaying to another chimpanzee, it would be helpful for the displaying chimpanzee to not reveal its identity in the drum beat so that another higher-ranking member doesn’t challenge them.

As you can see, chimpanzee drumming is complicated and there’s a lot more to learn about how it’s used for communication. But next time you’re at a concert with some friends, make sure to go bananas because you know chimpanzees would want your group to fuse as you listen to their awesome drumming skills!

References

Eleuteri, V., Henderson, M., Soldati, A., Badihi, G., Zuberbühler, K., & Hobaiter, C. (2022). The form and function of chimpanzee buttress drumming. Animal Behaviour, 192, 189–205. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2022.07.013

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