60-Second Science

Chimp Cops Arbitrate Disputes

High-ranking chimps in a group break up scuffles and keep the peace. Karen Hopkin reports

It sounds like the premise for a bad police drama, maybe NYPD Chimp. But scientists have found that high-ranking chimpanzees can act like cops: intervening to settle public disputes. The study appears in the journal Public Library of Science ONE. [Claudia Rudolf von Rohr et al., "Impartial Third-Party Interventions in Captive Chimpanzees: A Reflection of Community Concern"]

In any community, conflicts inevitably arise. That’s why we humans have law enforcement agencies, the military and impartial arbitrators like Jerry Springer. But how does our closest kin in the animal kingdom handle social unrest?

A team of anthropologists spent nearly 600 hours observing the social interactions of chimps at a Swiss zoo. And they saw the alpha male or his beta sidekick break up 69 different scuffles by running into the fray or getting up in the face of the warring parties, which were sometimes males but often females.

This kind of peacekeeping is not peculiar to Swiss apes. Chimps in an English zoo, and even in the wild, exhibit similar policing. And in some cases it’s a female that’s the top cop.

Such social intercession may have evolved to help stabilize the community, which ultimately benefits all its members. Including Chimpsky and Hutch.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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