The line between human and monkey has been crossed again - this time by chimps. Based on new research, scientists say chimps understand how fire will behave, and move to avoid it "expertly" in the wild.
Primatologist Jill Pruetz from Iowa State University in Ames was studying chimps in Senegal, on the savannahs. It was summer, during brushfire season, and she noticed that the chimps showed no fear of the wildfires at all. In fact, they moved to avoid it easily, predicting where to stand next to avoid the 10-foot flames. She speculates that these chimps were demonstrating a key insight that could lead to controlling fire: "An understanding of the behavior of fire under various conditions that enables one to predict its movement, permitting activity in close proximity to it."
Pruetz told LiveScience:
I was surprised at how expert they were at handling the fire. The fire was burning really hot, and the flames were at least 10 feet high, up to 20 feet at times.
She added that the chimps could predict the fire's next moves better than she could:
I could predict it, sort of, but if it were just me, I would have left. At one time, I actually had to push through them because I could feel the heat from the fire that was on the side of me and I just wasn't that comfortable with it.
The primatologist believes that chimps would have to develop two other key ideas before lighting any fires, however: "The ability to control fire by containing it, providing or depriving it of fuel and perhaps extinguishing it. [And] the capability to start a fire." Once chimps master the next two steps, it's just a slippery slope down to Charlton Heston shaking his fist in Planet of the Apes.
Photo via AFP