Chimpanzees – Cooperative or Competitive?

Considering the fact that Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, share 99% identical DNA with human beings, it’s no surprise that we might at times find their behaviour strikingly familiar to ours. In an interesting article in New York Times, writer Carl Zimmer suggested that human beings might have inherited the cooperative nature of chimpanzees “perhaps before the human and ape lineages divided”. He cited other series of experiments which produced the same results as what we see in the video – that Chimpanzees not only cooperate when there is a promise of reward, they also help out at simple tasks like picking up a dropped sponge.

Despite such findings on the cooperative nature of chimpanzees, people are still under the general impression that they are violent animals. Indeed, extensive studies have highlighted that their society is one that is characterized by aggression, whereby succession is determined by conflict. Competition is rife as male chimpanzees fight to achieve a dominant status. Violence is also often displayed to other chimpanzee groups.

The question then seems to be what is the “true nature” of chimpanzees? It is important that social factors ought be taken into account, as there is evidence that suggests that chimpanzees’ ability to cooperate is influenced by factors like tolerance constraints. Perhaps the gender of the chimpanzee might also affect the extent of cooperation or conflict. So far, field observations have provided unclear results of the cooperative behavior of wild chimpanzees. It remains to be explored if competition or cooperation is the more usual behavior of these animals. I believe that whether chimpanzees display hostile or helpful behavior depends greatly on the situation they are in and the presence of other animals around. Ultimately, they are just like humans – moodswings and all.


“Chimpanzee Problem Solving by Cooperation” by National Geographic Youtube Channel, 7 December 2008. (accessed on 8 April 2010)

“Chimpanzees Live In Small Family Groups, Are Aggressive And Often A Violent Society”, by J. Harrison. Chimpanzee Information: Chimpanzee Behaviour, 18 January 2010. (accessed on 8 April 2010)

“Chimps Display a Hallmark of Human Behaviour: Cooperation”, by C. Zimmer. The New York Times, 3 March 2006 (accessed on 8 April 2010)

M. N. Muller & J. C. Mitani, 2005. Conflict and Cooperation in Wild Chimpanzees. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 35: 275-299

A. P. Melis, B. Hare & M. Tomasello, 2006. Engineering cooperation in chimpanzees: tolerance constraints on cooperation, 75(2): 275-286

That’s not.. fair!

You would have probably noticed the Capuchin monkeys on the big screen, starring in popular sequel movies such the Night at the Museum (as Dexter and Able) and Pirates of the Caribbean (as Jack).

The Capuchin monkeys who starred in popular movies.

The Capuchin monkeys who starred in popular movies.

However beyond the Capuchins’ fame in Hollywood movies, scientists are discovering the Capuchins’ intelligence both in laboratory settings and also in the wild. Capuchins are regarded as the “brainiest monkeys”, because they not only have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any nonhuman primate (Fragaszy, Visalberghi, & Fedigan, 2004), but they are also have a stunning ability to use tools and learn how to use “token exchange”.

Cooperation and sense a fairness are the fascinating themes of the video. Vulcan and Virgil, a pair of tufted Capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) cooperated by solving the flint and hazelnut problem. Virgil gave Vulcan a fair share of the hazelnuts, showing their cooperation and a sense of fairness.

Without further ado, the video would show you their fascinating behaviour!

Capuchin monkeys are able to learn “token exchange”, where a token could be associated and exchanged for rewards or tools (Westergaard, Evans, & Howell, 2007). However, when Vulcan realised that Virgil received a grape instead of a biscuit, he refused to accept the biscuit anymore. This not only showed the food preference for the grape, but also the “inequity aversion” behaviour of Vulcan when he pushed away the biscuit and kept trying for a grape instead.

On the other hand, a study found that the inequity aversion could instead be due to a “frustration effect” induced by changing the Capuchins from their role as “models receiving a high-value food” to the role of witnesses “receiving a low-value food” (Silberberg et al., 2009). The study also considered that the correlate between inequity and frustration is not as strong because the frustration of nonhuman primates is variable.

Nevertheless, the cooperation and sense of fairness, a “point of principle” as narrated by Sir David Attenborough, are indeed captivating abilities that the Capuchin monkeys have. A short blog also commented and provide further insights on the video (The Subjective Lens, 2010). Beyond the laboratory settings, there are also remarkable discoveries in the wild. The hyperlinks to the videos are provided below!

In the wild - the Capuchin using a hammer and an anvil to crack open nuts.

In the wild - the Capuchin using a hammer and anvil to crack open nuts.


Books, Articles and Blogposts

“A sense of fair play,” by The Subjective Lens. The Subjective Lens… adventures of a cowboyastronomer, 5 Sep 2009. URL: (accessed on 5 Apr 2010).

“Crystal the Capuchin Monkey”, by URL: (accessed on 5 Apr 2010).

Fragaszy, D. M., Visalberghi, E., & Fedigan, L. M. (2004). The complete capuchin: the biology of the genus. USA : Cambridge University Press

Silberberg, A., Crescimbene, L., Addessi, E., Anderson, J. R., & Visalberghi, E. (2009). Does inequity aversion depend on a frustration effect? A test with capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). Animal Cognition, 12, 505-509.

Takimoto, A., Kuroshima, H., & Fujita, K. (2010). Capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) are sensitive to others’ reward: an experimental analysis of food-choice for conspecifics. Animal Cognition, 13, 249-261.

Westergaard, G. C., Evans, T. A., & Howell, S. (2007). Token mediated tool exchange between tufted capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). Animal Cognition, 10, 407-414.


“Monkey Cooperation and Fairness (excerpt from the Monkey Puzzle),” by tehinfidel. URL: (accessed on 5 Apr 2010).

“BBC Two Programmes, Wildlife on Two, Capuchins: The Monkey Puzzle”, narrated by David Attenborough. URL: (accessed on 5 Apr 2010).

“Monkey’s bluff – Clever Monkeys – BBC Earth,” by BBC Earth YouTube Channel, 18 May 2009. URL: (accessed 5 Apr 2010).

“Monkeys on the lookout – Clever Monkeys – BBC Earth,” by BBC Earth YouTube Channel, 20 Jul 2009. URL: 5 Apr 2010).

“Nutters – the monkey production line – Clever Monkeys – BBC Earth,” by BBC Earth YouTube Channel, 20 Jul 2009. URL: 5 Apr 2010).


“Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) and the little monkey in movie Night at the Museum wallpaper,” by URL: (accessed on 5 Apr 2010).

“Monkey Trouble,” by Sentinelrv. GameSpot Forums – The HeadCrab Union Board – Monkey Trouble. URL: (accessed on 5 Apr 2010).

“Night At The Museum 2: Battle Of The Smithsonian Wallpapers,” by  Entertainment Trend. URL: (accessed on 5 Apr 2010).

“D1X Nut Crackers,” by birthrightearth. Flickr. URL: (accessed on 5 Apr 2010)