The team of researchers from the U.S., England, Japan and Portugal investigated the behaviour of modern-day chimpanzees as they competed for food resources, in an effort to understand what ecological settings would lead a large ape - one that resembles the 6 million-year old ancestor we shared in common with living chimpanzees - to walk on two legs.
“These chimpanzees provide a model of the ecological conditions under which our earliest ancestors might have begun walking on two legs,” said Dr. Brian Richmond, an author of the study and associate professor of anthropology at the George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
The research findings suggest that chimpanzees switch to moving on two limbs instead of four in situations where they need to monopolize a resource, usually because it may not occur in plentiful supply in their habitat, making it hard for them to predict when they will see it again.
Standing on two legs allows them to carry much more at one time because it frees up their hands. Over time, intense bursts of bipedal activity may have led to anatomical changes that in turn became the subject of natural selection where competition for food or other resources was strong.
The team conducted two studies in Guinea. The first study was in Kyoto University’s “outdoor laboratory” in a natural clearing in Bossou Forest. Researchers allowed the wild chimpanzees access to different combinations of two different types of nut—the oil palm nut, which is naturally widely available, and the coula nut, which is not.
The chimpanzees’ behavior was monitored in three situations: (a) when only oil palm nuts were available, (b) when a small number of coula nuts was available, and (c) when coula nuts were the majority available resource.
When the rare coula nuts were available only in small numbers, the chimpanzees transported more at one time. Similarly, when coula nuts were the majority resource, the chimpanzees ignored the oil palm nuts altogether. The chimpanzees regarded the coula nuts as a more highly prized resource and competed for them more intensely.
The second study, by Kimberley Hockings of Oxford Brookes University was a 14-month study of Bossou chimpanzees crop-raiding, a situation in which they have to compete for rare and unpredictable resources. Here, 35 percent of the chimpanzees’ activity involved some sort of bipedal movement, and once again, this behaviour appeared to be linked to a clear attempt to carry as much as possible at one time.
This latest research was published in this month’s “Current Biology.”