Chimps have a biological GPS

It appears that chimpanzees have a very sophisticated means of navigating their environment that goes beyond using landmarks to get from place to place. From New Scientist:

If you’re ever lost in the jungle, follow a chimpanzee. New research suggests the great apes keep a geometric mental map of their home range, moving from point to point in nearly straight lines.
“The kind of striking thing when you are with the chimpanzees in the forest is that we use a compass or GPS, but obviously these guys know where they are going,” says Christophe Boesch, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.
With the aid of GPS, he and colleague Emmanuelle Normand shadowed the movements of 15 chimpanzees in Côte d’Ivoire’s Taï National Park for a total of 217 days.
In a given day, a single animal might visit 15 of the roughly 12,000 trees in its 17-square-kilometre range, Boesch says. “They are kind of nomads.”

It also seems that the chimps, not surprisingly, are advanced planners, factoring in tasks of the day when deciding what routes to take.

Paul Garber, a biological anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, thinks that point-to-point distance might not be the only factor involved in a chimpanzee’s choice of route.
Quantity and quality of food, as well as competition, could play a role in route choice. Also, like travelling salesmen who optimize their travels, chimpanzees may be thinking about navigation with an eye to the future, Garber says. “They may be planning not just one step in a route, but many, many steps ahead.”

It is intriguing that this kind of study could not have been done even five years ago, because the GPS devices required by the researchers didn’t work in the chimps’ own habitat until fairly recently.

5 thoughts on “Chimps have a biological GPS”

  1. Bad Headline. Really chimps do the exact opposite of GPS based on the story. They use knowledge of the local environment to do good dead reckoning. It is not that they create an external grid to use or even use celestial beacons of some sort. Plus the fact that the story seems to imply the need for GPS is ridiculous. You could take landmarks and plot positions with surveyors tools. It would just be more work. Humans could act just like the chimps if they wanted in that environment without any “GPS”. Just with local knowledge.
    The results are interesting but for some reason the way they were reported just grates on me.

  2. Yeah, I knew I was wrong to propagate the headline from the news feed pointing me toward that story, but I was too lazy to come up with a better one. The chimps aren’t so much emulating technology of any sort as demonstrating a very human-like ability to plan and remember shit.
    I wonder how they do at night. When I was at Officer Basic Camp in the mid-1990’s, all of the obsessing I had done over USGS maps combined with my habit of running through the NH woods without necessarily knowing where the fuck I was had turned me into one of the better land-nav guys there. But there were some former Rangers who were just devastatingly good at dead reckoning in the dark and other aspects of the trade. It was pretty humbling.

  3. Any idea what mechanism these guys use for their navigation? Sharks and sea turtles can use the magnetic field of the Earth to keep from getting lost on their long distance trips.

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