Spontaneous cross-species imitation in interaction between chimpanzees and zoo visitors

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Abstract

Imitation is a cornerstone in human development, serving both a cognitive function (e.g. in the acquisition and transmission of skills and knowledge) and a social-communicative function, whereby the imitation of familiar actions serves to maintain social interaction and promote prosociality. In nonhuman primates, this latter function is poorly understood, or even claimed to be absent, yet the evidence is gathered mainly from learning experiments - a context which is less adequate for investigating communicative imitation. In this observational study, we documented interactions between chimpanzees and zoo visitors and found that the two species imitated each other at a similar rate, corresponding to 10% of all produced actions. Imitation appeared to accomplish a social-communicative function, as cross-species interactions that contained imitative actions lasted significantly longer than interactions without imitation. In both species, physical proximity promoted cross-species imitation. Overall, imitative precision was higher among visitors than among chimpanzees, but this difference vanished in proximity contexts, i.e. in the indoor environment. Four of five chimpanzees produced imitations; three of them exhibited comparable imitation rates, despite large individual differences in level of cross-species interactivity. We also found that chimpanzees evidenced imitation recognition, yet only when visitors imitated their actions (as opposed to postures). Imitation recognition was expressed by returned imitation in 36% of the cases, and all four imitating chimpanzees engaged in so-called imitative games. Previously regarded as unique to early human socialization, such games testify to the rewarding nature of imitative interaction and serve to maintain social engagement. Contrary to what it has been suggested, the results presented here indicate that nonhuman apes exhibit spontaneous imitation that can accomplish a communicative function. The study raises a number of novel questions for imitation research and highlights the imitation of familiar behaviors as a relevant – yet thus far understudied - research topic.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-29
JournalPrimates
Volume59
Issue number1
Early online date2017 Aug 16
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Jan

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Zoology
  • Philosophy

Keywords

  • communication
  • play
  • social cognition
  • prosociality

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