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Gonzaga professor leads study on chimpanzee behavior

This photo was taken at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia during a study on different chimpanzee handclasps unique to communities during grooming.
This photo was taken at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia during a study on different chimpanzee handclasps unique to communities during grooming.

Much like children learn certain long-lasting behaviors from their surroundings, so do chimpanzees, according to a study by a Gonzaga University professor.

Basically, it’s the nurture concept, said Mark Bodamer, a GU associate professor of psychology who worked on the study with undergraduate students and four international scientists.

Students and scientists observed 125 chimpanzees from 2007 to 2012 at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia. Chimpanzees use different handclasps to raise their arms up in the air while grooming each other depending on which community they belong to, researchers found. One community may grip hands palm-to-palm while another holds each other’s wrists and yet another doesn’t do either.

The handclasp behavior had been documented in previous observations, and researchers were attempting to determine if it was instinctive or learned.

This “is a clear-cut example of cultural traditions,” Bodamer said.

The results were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, a British scientific journal. The study has been viewed by 14.4 million people around the world and made news in eight countries.

Other studies have shown chimpanzees can communicate through sign language. And they kiss, hug, make and use tools, recognize themselves in a mirror, mourn and have long-term memories. This is just another example that shows similarities “that we didn’t believe existed,” Bodamer said.

“For me, the more we study chimpanzees, the more we see it’s not just us versus them,” Bodamer said.

The research has brought welcome attention to the university, Gonzaga spokesman Pete Tormey said.

“We are not considered a research college per se. But we have a lot of professors doing significant research like Professor Bodamer, so it’s great for the university when this happens,” he said.

Tormey said the study is “getting undergraduate students involved in research. It gives them a leg up on many other students from other institutions because of that hands-on experience.”

GU graduate Jourdan Cruz spent last summer researching the chimpanzees. He called the experience “life-changing.”

“Being three feet away from these animals that you share 99.6 percent of your DNA with was amazing,” he said. “It’s like you are experiencing evolutional history. When you look at them and they look back at you, it’s like you are being studied, too.”

Cruz is headed to graduate school for a degree in experimental psychology.

Chris Galeucia, a senior at Gonzaga, also participated in the study. “It was definitely really, really eye-opening to see how they behave. It’s humbling. They are so similar to us, their behaviors and how they interact with each other. It’s one of those, oh wow, we are not quite alone.”

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