CHICAGO, April 16 (UPI) -- A study of wild African chimpanzees, the closest relatives to humans in the animal kingdom, shows young females have been faster learners than males for millions of years and are more proficient in acquired skills.
After four years of observing chimps at the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Elizabeth Lonsdorf and two colleagues from the University of Minnesota found young females learned to use a stick, stem, leaf or palm frond to fish for termites, a rich source of protein and fat, earlier than males. Boy chimps generally spent their time monkeying around, frolicking, wrestling and turning somersaults.
Mothers taught the female chimps how to use the sticks as a tool to insert in termite mounds to extract the tasty white antlike insects, the researchers observed. Young females spent more time perfecting the task, which required dexterity and fine motor skills, and were better at it than the young males.
"We found that in this specific skill, which is termite fishing, that females learned how to do it at a younger age," Lonsdorf, 29, director of field conservation at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, told WLS-TV. "The females tended to watch their mothers very closely even at a very young age and the males were just kind of playing. Hanging out."
Lonsdorf said the girl chimps, on average, picked up the skill at around 30 months, more than a year earlier than boy chimps, but she said that does not mean females are smarter. Males perfected termite fishing at around 58 months.
"We found there are distinct, sex-based differences akin to those in human children, in the way young chimpanzees develop their termite-fishing skills," Lonsdorf and co-authors Lynn Eberly and Anne Pusey wrote in a report in the April 15 issue of the British journal Nature.
Pusey is founder and research director of the University of Minnesota's Jane Goodall Institute Center for Primate Studies in St. Paul. Goodall's pioneering research in primatology in the 1960s discovered chimps routinely used tools.
The study found young females spent more time closely watching their mothers and attentively mimicked their technique, copying how far to insert the tool into the termite mound. The young boy chimps had shorter attention spans and were easily distracted, but their childhood roughhousing, romping and swinging in trees may help them later in life to hone more danger-filled hunting skills and interact in male adult social activities that determine dominance.
"This finding is a heads up to researchers studying the learning of relatively complex skills that they should take sex into account," Lonsdorf said.
Chimps have long childhoods and typically stay with their mothers at least 11 years before they venture out on their own.
"Whatever pattern a mother showed, her daughter matched it almost exactly," Lonsdorf said.
Behavioral scientists long have known that human females develop quicker intellectually than males and outperform them in school before the boys eventually catch up.
Chimpanzees share more than 99 percent of their DNA with their human cousins and researchers say their study could have implications in gender differences in early childhood learning.
Mothers and teachers well know the stereotype of conscientious young girls and unruly boys. For example, the rambunctious Bart Simpson continually torments his brainy sister, Lisa, in "The Simpsons," the popular animated television series. Their patient blue-haired mother, Marge, does most of the parenting in the household. The program remains a favorite of young children and adults after 15 years on the air.
Lonsdorf said learning and development of both species may go back 6 million years to a "missing link" -- a common ancestor of chimps and humans.
Lonsdorf showed videotapes of 14 young wild chimps -- eight males and six females -- and their mothers at a news conference at the zoo's conservation center to publicize the field study, "Sex Differences in Learning in Chimpanzees."
Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo opens its new Regenstein Center for African apes in July and the habitat will feature a termite mound for a new family of chimps.
"All of them, even the adults will have to learn it (termite fishing) and we'll be there to see how they do that," said Lonsdorf, the study's principal author.
Chimpanzees in Tanzania have two major protein sources in the wild, termites and colobus monkeys, Lonsdorf said. Adult females spend more time fishing for termites than males do.
"Mature males often hunt monkeys up in trees, but females are almost either pregnant or burdened with a clinging infant. This makes hunting difficult," Lonsdorf said. "Females can fish for termites and watch their offspring at the same time."
Al Swanson is UPI's Midwest Correspondent. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org