With humans continuing to encroach on the habitats of wildlife, animals need to learn to exploit and adapt to these new landscapes in order to survive. Chimpanzees, for example, alter their grouping and vocalizations in order to evade human detection whilst raiding croplands or entering areas potentially occupied by hunters. Now, unlike a deer stuck in headlights, it seems that wild chimps are beginning to realize the importance of crossing roads safely, as scientists have observed them implementing similar safety precautions to us, such as looking both ways for oncoming traffic.
Not only do these findings once again demonstrate how adaptable these animals are, and how human-like some of their behaviors can be, but hopefully they will encourage further research on the effects of busy roads on chimpanzee populations, which in turn will lead to the establishment of new safety measures in order to protect them.
For the investigation, researchers wanted to further our knowledge of how human landscapes, or more specifically highways, could be affecting wild chimp behaviors, so they spent almost two and a half years observing them around a road crossing in Kibale National Park, Uganda. During this time, they witnessed 122 individual crossings of this hazardous road, which is used by almost 90 vehicles an hour, whizzing along at speeds of up to 60 mph (100 kph). But although this road represents a serious risk to the chimps, the researchers found that they took this into account when crossing and exhibited both vigilance and caution.
More than 90% of the animals looked both ways before and during crossing, and many even stood up in a bipedal posture to check for traffic and reduce the risk of being hit, the researchers report in the American Journal of Primatology. Additionally, more than 55% of them ran across the road, demonstrating that they realize the importance of getting to the other side as soon as possible, and almost 20% paid attention to others whilst crossing, either checking on them or waiting for them.
Alpha males were also found to generally take the lead of crossing events, going first and organizing the parties more than 80% of the time. And unlike healthy females, who would only pay attention to others and stop for them if they had a dependent, healthy males would often look to others and help ensure that vulnerable party members, such as infants, crossed safely.
Interestingly, the researchers also observed that the behavior of chimps in this area was different to those observed crossing roads in Bossou, Guinea. For example, during this investigation, chimps tended to split into small subgroups of usually two individuals when crossing, but in Boussou they generally all crossed together in a line. The researchers hypothesize that this could be because the road in Kibale National Park is significantly busier and more hazardous than the one in Boussou, so the chimps are forced to adopt a different strategy to make sure they stay safe.
Since new roads are continually being built throughout Africa to support development, the researchers hope that by studying how animals behave around these landscapes, they can encourage the establishment of mitigation measures, like bridges and underpasses, in order to reduce collisions between wildlife and vehicles.