Chimp acts like jerk, gets praised by scientists

A chimpanzee at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden has been lauded for his 'innovation' and 'sophisticated cognitive skills,' after behaving like a complete schmuck.  

Tomas Persson/PLoS ONE
The series of photos shows Santino, a sadistic chimpanzee, as he slowly moves towards the group of visitors to Sweden's Furuvik Zoo, with the intention of hurling rocks at them. Note the two projectiles in his left hand. The picture on the left was taken 31 seconds before the throw; the central picture, where he picks up an apple from the water moat, was taken 15 seconds before; the right picture was taken 1 second before the throw.

A chimpanzee at Sweden's Furuvik Zoo has drawn praise from scientists for acting like a complete jerk.

According to a study published this week in PLoS ONE, Santino, a 34-year-old male, apparently enjoyed hurling stones at people who came to look at him. The mean-spirited behavior began in 2010, when he approached a group of visitors with stones in each hand, screeching at them. The visitors retreated out of range before the horrible chimp started throwing the stones at them.

The group of visitors returned later that day. Santino approached them again holding two stones, but this time appearing non-aggressive and munching on an apple. But once he got within range, he suddenly threw a rock at the group, not hitting anyone. 

Later that day, the researchers observed the dastardly ape placing a pile of hay on a spot inside his enclosure close to where visitors approached. He then began hiding rocks under the hay. When a group of visitors approached, Santino nonchalantly walked up to the hay and, without warning, grabbed one of the hidden rocks and threw it at them.

The researchers watched this fiendish behavior continue for almost four months. Santino would conceal the rocks under hay or behind logs or other structures, casually walk up to it, and then suddenly throw it at a visitor. 

The study's authors see Santino's diabolical actions as an example of foresight, an ability once thought limited to Homo sapiens. 

"No matter what mechanisms lie behind the behavior," said lead author Mathias Osvath in an interview with Science Now, Santino is engaging in planning for the future, and "that is not trivial."

By inhibiting his dominance displays and concealing the stones, Santino is also engaging in deception, the authors suggest, a skill that requires taking into account the perspectives and goals of other people, but not to the point where he might actually sympathize with them. The extent to which the unscrupulous chimp is able to represent the mental states of others remains unknown.

The authors report that, when the Furuvik Zoo reopened for its 2011 season, Santino had lost interest in hurling stones at visitors. He is most likely coming up with a new devious plot.  

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