Primate Behavior: Observing and Comparing


The present paper will seek to report on the observations of primate behavior in the Los Angeles Zoo and highlight behavioral similarities between primates and humans. This technique is often used in biological anthropology, which seeks to explain how humans appeared on Earth. Observing and comparing primate behavior to humans sheds new light on the evolutionary theory by highlighting important connections between our behavior and that of some closely related primates. The paper will focus on three separate species of primates: chimpanzees, orangutans, and mandrills.

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Los Angeles Zoo is home to a large troop of chimpanzees involving several generations of animals, which allows for observing complex social structures and interactions (“Chimpanzee”). The observed group had a social hierarchy where three members were exhibiting dominant traits. For instance, they could access the food first and could move younger chimpanzees around to reach certain spots in the enclosure.

Despite the presence of three dominating chimpanzees, one of them had more control over the actions of other troop members, which allows supposing that it was the alpha male in the group. A particular instance where this was observed was next to a wooden ring at the top of the structure created for the animals to play. As one of the dominant males was hanging on the ring, the alpha male approached him, pushed him off the ring, and occupied it.

The other male did not confront the alpha male about the incident, moving into a different spot in the structure instead. There could be other alpha males in the troop, but since not all chimpanzees were present and visible, it is not possible to identify the relationships between them.

Although the social hierarchy in chimpanzees is a compelling topic, it was also exciting to look at other behaviors that enable chimpanzees to survive in the wilderness. One such behavior is the use of tools for performing various tasks. The tools used by chimpanzees during observations included different stones and sticks that helped to break down the food into smaller pieces or reach insects inside of the trees and other wooden structures.

The use of tools shows the intellect of chimpanzees since they are famous for using certain items in the wild. One animal was also seen playing with a mirror. It was making different facial expressions at looking at the reflection from various angles. The chimpanzee appeared to be amused by the changes in the reflection and spent over 10 minutes by the mirror.

It was also interesting to note that chimpanzees competed for several preferable spots in the enclosure. For example, during observation, there was a struggle between three chimpanzees who all wished to sit on the roof of the wooden structure. From the biological viewpoint, this spot enabled one chimpanzee to monitor the actions of others and have more control over the group. Thus, this struggle was a power conflict, and the chimpanzee that won the spot was more dominating and authoritative.

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LA Zoo is also home to a small troop of orangutans, who were also an exciting species to observe. The hierarchy of the group was rather traditional, with one dominating male who was older than the other members of the troop and moved around in the enclosure to monitor the actions of other animals and check for threats. For example, the dominating male was seen climbing atop the play structure and watching other troop members.

Gender differences between male and female orangutans were also evident. There were two females visible in the enclosure, both caring about younger orangutans. One of the females was nursing a baby orangutang, whether the other was obtaining food for two younger troop members. These helping behaviors can be seen as characteristic of the female gender in orangutangs, as males did not show the same behaviors at the time of observation.

Orangutans were much less active than chimpanzees, although they still showed some interesting behaviors at individual levels. One of the young orangutangs appeared to be interested in observing and communicating with zoo visitors and spent over ten minutes next to the glass, showing signs and expressions at the people. Another young orangutang was busy playing with stones found in the enclosure.

He collected a number of stones and was trying to stack them on top of one another or build a small structure. Some instances of tool use were also observed among orangutans. However, what was more interesting is that the orangutang spent several minutes choosing a particular stick that would be the most appropriate for the job. He walked around in the enclosure, picking up various sticks, bending, biting, and looking at them. Once he found a particular stick he liked best, he used it to stick to collect more insects from the ground.


The last primate species that was observed as part of the assignment was the mandrills. Mandrills are different from chimpanzees and orangutans as they do not come from the family of the great apes (“Mandrill”). Therefore, it was expected that there would be many behavioral differences between mandrills and other species. The first difference was that the hierarchy of the troop was more apparent, and the members were active in either upholding or challenging it.

There was one dominating male who was bigger and older than other male mandrills in the group. For the most time, he was walking around in the enclosure, watching other troop members, and checking for threats. Nevertheless, at two separate times, his authority was challenged by younger males who also exhibited dominant traits. In both cases, the alpha male asserted his dominance by chasing down and attacking the challengers. Compared to other primate species, the hierarchy of the mandrill troop was in a more fluid state, which involved the opposition between males.

Two or three mandrills were also seen playing with tools in their enclosure. One of them was playing with a ball, rolling it around and chasing after it. This was probably a young mandrill, as she was observed by an older female throughout this time. There were no particular instances of tool use or spot protection. However, one of the female mandrills maintained distance with other troop members and was mostly hiding inside the stone structure. There was one time when she was approached by another female, but she did not appear to be interested in playing or communicating, and the other mandrill quickly left.

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Behavioral Similarities with Humans

There were several essential similarities that were noted during the observation of orangutangs, mandrills, and chimpanzees. The use of tools was an important process, as it showed how orangutangs and chimpanzees applied knowledge and experience. For example, when the orangutang was choosing a specific stick to pick insects from the ground, he was comparing each stick that he found based on his learned knowledge.

He knew that the stick could not be too thin and bendy, or it would be more difficult to pick up enough insects. The task of picking insects from the ground also requires excellent motion control, and studies show that chimpanzees can alter motor execution of a task when unsuccessful (Kaneko and Tomonaga 355). Thus, the use of tools observed in chimpanzees and orangutans is similar to how humans apply their knowledge and experience in solving various problems.

Social interactions were another point of similarity between orangutans, chimpanzees, and humans. The communication between troop members sometimes reminded human communication due to the use of diverse sounds and facial expressions. The age differences in communication patterns were also evident. Throughout the observations, older animals were calmer and less communicative than the younger ones. Weiss and King explain that the change in communication patterns and character over time is a common trait that both the great apes and humans possess and that has been studied in research (660).

All of the observed species interacted with their offspring differently depending on their age, which also relates to age-based communication differences seen in humans. Lastly, the games in which the animals engaged also showed their likeness to humans. For instance, one of the chimpanzees was seen playing with a mirror, and it appeared that it recognized herself in it. Research confirms that self-recognition is a unique trait of the great apes that relates their functioning to human behavior (Anderson and Gallup 317).


Overall, the observations highlighted the complex social structures evident in primate groups, as well as the behaviors that show their biological relation to humans. Based on the notes, there were more similarities between humans and the great apes than between humans in mandrills, which might be explained by the closeness of genetic and evolutionary relationships between different species. The specific behaviors that related primate behavior to human functioning were communication, play, age differences, self-recognition, and problem-solving.

Works Cited

Anderson, James R., and Gordon G. Gallup. “Mirror Self-Recognition: A review and Critique of Attempts to Promote and Engineer Self-Recognition in Primates.” Primates, vol. 56, no. 4, 2015, pp. 317-326.

Chimpanzee.” Los Angeles Zoo, n.d. Web.

Kaneko, Takaaki, and Masaki Tomonaga. “Differential Reliance of Chimpanzees and Humans on Automatic and Deliberate Control of Motor Actions.” Cognition, vol. 131, no. 3, 2014, pp. 355-366.

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“Mandrill.” Los Angeles Zoo, n.d. Web.

Weiss, Alexander, and James E. King. “Great Ape Origins of Personality Maturation and Sex Differences: A Study of Orangutans and Chimpanzees.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 108, no. 4, 2015, pp. 648-664.

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