Photo: Frank Kehren (flickr)
What do you do when the savannah is on fire? If you’re a frightened elephant or gazelle, unable to gauge the ferocity or direction of the flames, you run.
If you’re a chimpanzee, scientists at the Fongoli research site in Senegal have found, you might not be so concerned. As a matter of fact, you might even do a little dance.
Why do savannah chimps appear to be unafraid of fire? Scientists believe it’s because they are intelligent enough to predict where the fire is going to spread.
Instead of panicking, chimps remain calm near the flames and continue with their daily business. They even have what scientists call a “fire dance.” Similar to the “rain dance” coined by primatologist Jane Goodall, dominant males perform an exaggerated, slow motion dominance display toward the fire.
What does all this mean?
Chimp behavior is often used as a clue to understand early hominid or human behavior. Scientists have long wondered how hominids overcame the instinctive fear of fire and learned to manipulate it.
They believe that their first step to controlling fire was the ability to understand and predict its behavior. Later on, hominids learned to contain the fire by adding fuel or extinguishing it. In a final step, they learned how to create fire.
Researchers believed that understanding fire was a distinctly human trait that evolved long after the chimpanzee and hominid lines split on the family tree. These findings suggest that understanding fire is not so uniquely human after all.
Of course, scientists don’t expect to see chimps roasting burgers at a tailgate party anytime soon. But this information does give us an understanding of our closest cousins and ourselves.
Read More: Reaction to fire by savanna chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) at Fongoli, Senegal: Conceptualization of “fire behavior” and the case for a chimpanzee model (interscience)