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The ChimpCam Project

January 27, 2010

Its seems that a certain class of Americans loves nothing more than to make fun of scientific research they deem “useless,” “silly” or a “waste of taxpayer money.” These people would probably tell Barbara McClintock to stop playing around with that corn and get to some useful work!

baby chimpanzeeAlong the lines of seems-like-its-wasteful-but-its-really-not science comes the ChimpCam Project. Yes, producer/director John Capener teamed up with researchers at the Edinburgh Zoo to give simplified video cameras to chimps and let them make their own film. Insert your own reality TV/favorite celebrity punching bag joke here. The resulting documentary airs on BBC2 in Great Britain tonight (Jan. 27th) and a deal is in the works to air it on Animal Planet in the US later this year. Until then you can get a small taste of the chimps’ film making prowess in this YouTube video. Then I suggest you spend a little more time on YouTube, where I am 100% positive you will quickly discover videos much more inane than the chimps’.

OK, enough joking, moving on.

Why should we consider ChimpCam not just entertainment but important scientific research? Well, it teaches us a great deal about how chimps see the world. The ChimpCam allowed researchers to learn more about

  • Chimp self-awareness – can a chimp recognize that the chimp he sees in the mirror is himself, or does he treat it like another chimp?
  • Chimp social interests – were chimps more likely to film a particular area in the enclosure no matter which chimps were there, or to follow a certain individual all over the enclosure?
  • Chimp self-directed learning – how do the chimps explore and learn to use the camera?
  • Chimp learned behaviors – while teaching the chimps to use the camera, the staff was able to add to their knowledge of how to teach chimps in general. Teaching chimps specific behaviors helps with their care (for example, teaching a chimp to present an arm so a vet can take a blood sample during a medical exam).

Chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor. You could say that chimps are humanity’s closest living relatives. Learning more about chimps and other non-human primates can give us insight into our own human nature. Who knows, it may even explain our fascination with reality TV.

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