Tag Archives: gesture


Chimp gesture language translated – they’re the only ones besides humans to intentionally communicate

If you’ve ever watched chimps during a nature program and became startled by your own empathy towards them, you’re not alone. It’s no secret that chimps are our closest relatives out of all primates, having 98% similar DNA. It goes further than genetics – it’s enough to look a chimp in the eye. The reflection is more than a physical mirror; there’s a connection, and a recent study shows yet again how ‘human’ chimps can be. After closely following chimps for thousands of hours, British researchers finally cracked chimps’ communication code. The result: we now have a dictionary of 66 chimp gestures, often and dynamically used by the primates to intentionally convey meaning to one another.  This might just be one of the most important contributions in animal behavior and biology in a long time.

Chimp sign language

The researchers analyzed more than 5,000 meaningful exchanges between chimps, before they could settle on the most defining ones. Some of these gestures are unambiguous – used consistently to convey one meaning. Not surprisingly, some are very subtle. A chimp clipping a leaf, for instance, is eliciting sexual attention from a potential mate. Other gestures are ambiguous and have different meanings depending on the context. When a chimp grabs another chimp, he communicates “Stop that,” “Climb on me,” or “Move away,” depending on the situation.


A while ago, researchers showed that the gelada – a primate that closely resembles the baboon – can howl in a distinct manner mirroring human speech in some respects. Other research showed that monkeys and apes can understand complex information from another brethren’s call, but chimps are the only animals that intentionally communicate through gestures, apart from humans.

“It’s a bit like if you pick up a hot cup of coffee and you scream and blow on your fingers,” Dr Catherine Hobaiter, Professor at University of St. Andrews, who led the research,

“I can understand from that that the coffee was hot, but you didn’t necessarily intend to communicate that to me.”

What makes you human?

So, if you had any doubts until now that there are other beings in this world (no aliens!) that share some of your emotions, and actually communicate these feelings, you have to look no further. Really, we’re not all that different. But this isn’t the end of it. Most likely, chimps use more commonly accepted gesture to communicate, and this need documenting. Also, it would be interesting to see how gestures evolve in a chimp community. After all, chimps seem to have fashion fads too. There’s no telling how truly complex and dynamic chimp society is.

“I have the impression that there were some meanings we couldn’t capture,” Hobaiter said. Sometimes, she recalled, a chimpanzee would gesture to another, then appear satisfied, though nothing else seemed to happen. Said Hobaiter, “I’d love to know what was going on!”

The chimp lexicon was described in a paper published in the journal Current Biology.


A male raven showing off an object in his beak to his peers. "Hey raven-lady, look at my thing! Here's some stuff, wanna touch it?" (c) Thomas Bugnyar

Ravens use gestures to point out things and communicate

We’re inclined to think that gestures are reserved to species which at least possess some kind of articulated limbs. However, scientists have shown that wild ravens purposefully gesture, making it the first time this type of be­hav­ior has been ob­served in the wild ex­cept in the clos­est rel­a­tives of hu­mans, primates.

A male raven showing off an object in his beak to his peers. "Hey raven-lady, look at my thing! Here's some stuff, wanna touch it?" (c) Thomas Bugnyar

A male raven showing off an object in his beak to his peers. “Hey raven-lady, look at my thing! Here’s some stuff, wanna touch it?” (c) Thomas Bugnyar

Sure, you might argue that you’ve seen your dog maybe come out at you and move or touch you with its snot to show you a certain direction, most likely where you keep your food. Researchers claim, however, that these aren’t naturally developed gestures, instead, they’ve been infused by training.

In the new study, Si­mone Pi­ka of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Or­nith­ol­o­gy in Mu­nich, Ger­ma­ny, and Thom­as Bugn­yar of the Uni­vers­ity of Vi­en­na ob­served wild rav­ens in the Cum­ber­land Wild Park in Grü­nau, Aus­tria. What they observed amazed them greatly.

RELATED: Urban birds have bigger brains

The ravens would use their beaks in the manner a human uses its hands to show and of­fer ob­jects such as moss, stones, and twigs. Like all super-efforts on Earth, these gestures were directed towards the opposite sex. As if gesturing wasn’t enough, the ravens would sometime interact with each other using the object, as the researchers could observe the ravens touching or clasping their bills together, or by manipulating the item together.

“Most exciting is how a species, which does not represent the prototype of a ‘gesturer’ because it has wings instead of hands, a strong beak and can fly, makes use of very sophisticated nonvocal signals,” Pika told LiveScience.

Ravens, and their close relatives, crows, and magpies, have been found to be of extreme intelligence for a bird, some actually rivaling great apes in tests, and rav­en mat­ing pairs show rel­a­tively com­plex com­mu­nica­t­ion and high coop­era­t­ion. The latter part is of severe importance since a further study of the raven, correlated with other data, might help decipher the origin of gesture in human beings.

“Ges­ture stud­ies have too long fo­cused on com­mu­nica­tive skills of pri­ma­tes on­ly. The mys­tery of the ori­gins of hu­man lan­guage, how­ev­er, can only be solved if we look at the big­ger pic­ture and al­so con­sid­er the com­plex­ity of the com­mu­nica­t­ion sys­tems of oth­er an­i­mal groups,” said Pi­ka.

The researchers’ findings were published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications.