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Surprising Science

Chimps on Fire

Chimpanzees remain remarkably cool when faced with fire and are able to react with “near human ability” to protect themselves under threat from wildfire, according to scientists.

“Chimps remain cool under fire, possessing a near human ability to predict how wildfires spread and react accordingly. This newfound capability of chimpanzees to understand flames might shed light on when and how our distant ancestors first learned to control fire, scientists now suggest. Primatologist Jill Pruetz at Iowa State University in Ames was observing savanna chimpanzees in Senegal in 2006 as people were setting wildfires, an annual tradition that clears land and aids hunting. Most areas within the chimpanzees’ home range are burned to some degree. ‘It was the end of the dry season, so the fires burn so hot and burn up trees really fast, and they were so calm about it,’ Pruetz said of the chimps. ‘They were a lot better than I was, that’s for sure.’ For the most part, wild animals consider fire very distressing, but the chimpanzees showed no sign of stress or fear with the wildfires, other than calmly avoiding the fire as it approached them.”


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