In Chimp Vs. Drone, Chimp Wins

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A new study analyzes chimps’ use of tools against a drone that was filming in the Royal Burger's Zoo in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Royal Burger's Zoo/YouTube

One day in April, a drone flew over the enclosure where chimps live at the Royal Burger's Zoo in Arnhem in the Netherlands. The first time it passed overhead was merely a test for the filmmakers planning to capture footage of the animals that day.

Then, the camera began rolling and the drone started making its way toward the chimps to film them at a closer angle. That's when Tushi, a female chimp born in 1992, used the willow branch she'd carried with her up some scaffolding to swing at the hovering object. Once, twice and the branch made contact, sending the drone topsy turvy, flipping toward the ground. The camera, still functioning, captured the faces of curious chimps looking at the foreign object that had been beaten out of the sky.

Five months later, researchers have analyzed video footage and observer accounts of the incident collected immediately afterward, and published their findings in the journal Primates.

"The sequence of events is highly suggestive of an interpretation of the use of the stick as a planned, deliberate action to 'attack' the drone (agonistically motivated) or 'find out about' the drone (curiosity motivated)," write first author and primatologist Jan van Hooff and zoo official Bas Lukkenaar, "given the decision to collect the stick and take it to a place where the drone might come within reach."

The researchers believe that Tushi acted deliberately rather than out of a defensive reflex, since she moved to an exposed position closer to the drone, and had a facial expression that indicated exertion but not fear. The incident is consistent with and bolsters previous research that indicates chimps engage in advanced planning of tool use.

Despite the event showing what appears to be deliberate tool use, humans have never directly taught the Arnhem chimps such skills. Still, van Hooff and fellow researchers have previously identified 13 different types of tool use in the colony, with the chimps seeming to choose the size, shape and weight of the tools to suit the particular use. In this case the chimpanzee picked up a 180-centimeter (roughly 71-inch) branch and used it to bring down a drone.