Chimpanzees drumming up an identity all of their own in the rainforests

Mick the Ram

Sep 8, 2022

Recent studies of chimpanzees in the Ugandan rainforests by a group of scientific researchers have concluded that the creatures communicate with each other over long distances, by drumming out messages with both their hands and their feet on to tree roots, which double as their percussion set, and using signature rhythms to specify their own individual identities.

The male chimps produce a distinct pattern of beats combined with long-distance vocalisations, called pant-hoots, to reveal where exactly they are, and what they are doing at certain points of their journeys, whilst on the move through the forestry.

The findings are to be published in the journal: Animal Behaviour.

Expert analysis

Dr Catherine Hobaiter, a Primatologist from the University of St Andrews explained: “This is all very exciting for us. These booming noises resonate and can carry for more than a kilometre through the rainforest. We have known for some considerable time that the chimps drum, but we have now been able to establish that they have their own signature rhythms, to showcase their own identities and to some extent, their own personalities.”

She continued: “What we were not sure about was whether the beats represented any coded message. We now know that they do indeed take the form of a kind of checking-in process, whilst they are travelling over longer distances.”

An interesting find was that the beats were quite similar to musical rhythms, each with their own particular timings. Dr Hobaiter pointed out: “It was fascinating when we were studying the drumming to discover the different personalities coming out from within the beats. There are ‘rock drummers’ who simply bash the living daylights out of the root, pretty much straight down the line; whilst others are more ‘free-form’ and introduce some extra flourishes, to really personalize the sound.”

“Localized” language

Responding to questions on whether the messages might actually contain any subtle additional content hidden within their communication, Dr Hobaiter clarified: “We are just at the surface of looking into this part of the drumming. We believe there is a distinct possibility that there could well be some localization, created within the style and rhythm of the beats, to distinguish different groupings; because chimpanzees are territorial, so it is likely that they are used as a language for separate communities.”

Crafty males

An interesting finding was that the males do not necessarily always put their “signature” beat in to their drumming, especially if they are “displaying” for the females benefit. It is thought that they do not always want other male chimps, who may be eavesdropping on their communication and especially a large alpha, to know exactly who it is that may possibly be demonstrating their strength, when perhaps identifying themselves could leave them vulnerable to attack from a stronger male.

Previous findings

In past studies it has been revealed that wild chimps communicate as many as 19 specific messages to one another with a “lexicon” of up to 66 gestures. The scientists involved in those studies discovered this fact by following and filming communities of chimps in Uganda, and examining more than 5,000 incidents of their meaningful exchanges. It was agreed at that time that only humans and chimps undertook this form of intentional communication, within the animal kingdom.

The eastern chimpanzee

The chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is one of the great apes, along with gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and of course humans. They live in tropical forests and woodland savannahs, across central and west Africa. The eastern chimpanzee (or common chimpanzee) is the only subspecies that is found in Uganda. Other countries where it can be found include: Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, Southern Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

The eastern chimp has a distinctive black coat that is more closely related to man than any other living creature, sharing 98.7 per cent of our genetic blueprint. Scientific research strongly suggests we share a common ancestor. A chimp has long arms with opposable thumbs. Their hair colour is predominately brown to black, and adults are similar in size to adolescent humans.


Chimpanzees have suffered greatly from the increasing presence and influence of man in their environment, and are now threatened with extinction. Uganda is home to a sizeable population of common chimpanzees with an estimated 5,000 individuals existing; as per the 2020 IUCN Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. They occupy National parks, reserves and rainforests.

Social structure

They live in large communities, known as bands, or troops of upwards of 80 members, made up of a core of related males and a hierarchy led at the top by an alpha male. The female is however, far less bonded and as a consequence, emigration between communities, is reasonably common practice. They sleep, travel, and feed in smaller sub-groups, probably consisting of around ten chimps and these too can be very flexible, with membership changing quite often.

This highly social structure sees the males remain in their birth community indefinitely, whilst the females tend to move to neighbouring vicinities, once they reach breeding age. Studies have shown that they are the only species other than humans, to carry out coordinated attacks on each other, challenging a long felt notion that warfare is a human development.

High intelligence

It is commonly believed that chimpanzees are second only to humans amongst the planet’s primates in terms of intelligence, with highly developed communication skills. They have an array of methods in their armoury of finding food supply, not necessarily apparent immediately. They have been observed using more tools than any other non-human species, using rocks, sticks, and leaves as aids to access and consume food.

Incredible strength

Despite the fact that chimpanzees are smaller than adult humans, their strength is vastly superior. The male chimp has been measured as having as much as five times the arm strength of a human male. Pound for pound their muscles develop to be significantly stronger. Add to that their large canine teeth, and you have a potentially lethal creature, that is almost impossible to control.

Domesticating a chimp not advisable

A young chimp is cute and affectionate and might seem to some, to be a great pet to have around the home. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Tiger or lion cubs are equally cute, but nobody would sensibly introduce one to the domestic scene, because most people are aware of what they grow up to be.

Chimpanzees are incredibly complex and dangerous animals, and would be a ticking time bomb in anybody’s home. They could go for years perfectly fine, then attack for no apparent reason completely out of the blue, such is their temperament and their capabilities are frightening. They would severely disfigure a human in seconds, with a tendency to strike out at the face.

Put simply they cannot ever truly be controlled.

We’re not as unique as we’d like to think

The big message emerging from the studies carried out into the drumming issue is that this is more proof that there is unquestionably another species, besides humans, who communicate meaningfully within the animal world.

Dr Hobaiter confirmed: “It is clear that substantive communication is not unique to humans. I do not think we are quite as set apart as we would perhaps like to think we are; but then chimps are more closely related to us than they are to the rest of the great apes, so it makes sense that we are incredibly similar to them, in many ways.”

A key characteristic of the human language is the flexibility of our communication. The drumming is a really sophisticated means of doing much the same for the chimpanzees. Dr Hobaiter made a very valid point when she suggested humans were still guilty of underestimating the complexities of the animal kingdom overall. She said: “Every time that we draw a line in the sand and decide we are better than any other species because we do this, or that, we discover other species have similar capacities; but simply have different ways and means of doing things.”

Chimps mobile phone alternative

Dr Hobaiter went on to say: “Making a breakthrough with the drumming has also helped go some way to solving a long standing puzzle with regards to the chimps communication. In the wild we have identified that they greet each other, but we noticed they never seem to say ‘goodbye’, when splitting off into the forest. It now seems that this is because they do not need to do so, as they can effectively continue to keep in touch, whilst on the move.”

She added: “It is continually a wake up call for us as a species, and maybe it is us who need to recognise that it is actually us who are constantly needing to catch up with the rest of the creatures who we share this planet with.”

It seems that the chimps were way ahead of us humans when it came to the mobile phone.

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