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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


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.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Zoology
  • Philosophy


  • communication, play, social cognition, prosociality
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19-29
Issue number1
Early online date2017 Aug 16
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Jan
Publication categoryResearch

Related research output

Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, Jagoda Zlakowska, Tomas Persson, Sara Lenninger & Elainie Madsen, 2020 May 20, In: PLoS ONE. 15, 5, e0232717.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc & Tomas Persson, 2018 Oct 19, The Conversation 3 p.

Research output: Contribution to specialist publication or newspaperSpecialist publication article

Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, Tomas Persson & Elainie Madsen, 2017 Oct 27, Proceedings of the 13th SweCog Conference. Arweström Jansson, A., Axelsson, A., Andreasson, R. & Billing, E. (eds.). Skövde: University of Skövde, p. 21-23 (Skövde University Studies in Informatics ; vol. 2017, no. 2).

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingPaper in conference proceeding

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Related activities

Sauciuc, G. (Interviewee)
2019 May 4

Activity: OtherMedia participation

Sauciuc, G. (Interviewee)
2017 Aug 23

Activity: OtherMedia participation

Sauciuc, G. (Interviewee)
2017 Aug 21

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Related prizes

Tomas Persson (Recipient), Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc (Recipient) & Elainie Madsen (Recipient), 2020 Jan 2

Prizes and Distinctions: Prize (including medals and awards)

Tomas Persson (Recipient), Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc (Recipient) & Elainie Madsen (Recipient), 2018 Sep 13

Prizes and Distinctions: Prize (including medals and awards)

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