Scientists have observed apes swimming for the first time—and captured it all on film.
A refreshing swim may be a common activity for people, but not so for our ape kin—scientists have long noted apes’ fear of the water. Enter research team Renato and Nicole Bender, who shot videos of a chimpanzee named Cooper and an orangutan named Suryia in a swimming pool, playing just like humans.
The researchers said that although some monkey species—such as snow monkeys, proboscis monkeys, and macaques—frequently swim in their natural environment, the behavior hasn’t been observed in wild apes, and only anecdotally in captive apes. (Watch a video of snow monkeys swimming in Japan.)
One of their next goals is to determine whether wild apes also swim, or if the phenomenon is limited to captive apes like Cooper and Suryia.
The Benders, who divide their time between the University of Bern in Switzerland and Wits University in South Africa, published their observations July 30 in the Journal of Physical Anthropology. Nicole spoke with National Geographic about the pair’s work.
Why were you interested in the idea of apes swimming?
As part of my husband’s Ph.D., he wanted to study humans interacting with water and also how apes interacted with water. When we did a literature search, we didn’t find anything. So we started to ask around to other people and what they knew. We wrote to zoos and asked them if they had seen anything. Finally, a colleague sent us a link to the [wildlife park] Myrtle Beach Safari, which had information about an orangutan named Suryia, with links to YouTube videos of her swimming. Suryia’s owner agreed to participate in our research and also told us about Cooper [the chimpanzee]. (Also see “Chimps, Orangutans Have Human-Like Memory.”)
How did you film these videos of Cooper and Suryia swimming?
Both apes are very used to humans, so with both of them, it was possible for Renato go to in the pool with them and film them underwater while they were swimming and playing. I was filming from the land.
It was extremely amazing to watch this. Looking at Cooper, he did so well in the water. He wanted to play all the time. It was amazing to see because normally apes are afraid of the water. I got shivers when I saw this.
What were Cooper and Suryia actually doing in the water?
Cooper really seemed to enjoy diving. We had stretched ropes over part of the pool for security reasons, and Cooper actually used these to dive deep, which you can see on the videos. He started to do this while we were there, and shortly after we left, he started swimming, actually.
Suryia was a little bit different because [she] was trained for a show. After they saw her swimming and diving, the trainers encouraged her to do this for the show. She developed these movements on her own. (See National Geographic’s ape videos.)
What are the significance of these findings?
Some researchers thought that apes could not swim because they didn’t have enough body fat. And we could show that they are able to swim, if circumstances allow. They’re like humans—they can learn to swim.
Another hypothesis said that apes couldn’t swim underwater because of breath control. A human’s ability to hold their breath was thought to be the reason we could talk and other animals couldn’t. But we saw the apes swimming under water, which showed they could control their breath for diving. But apes still do not talk, so there have to be other reasons why they can’t talk.
What are some of the topics you hope to study in the future?
We want to understand why humans started to interact more with water. We also want to compare several apes, since every individual develops his own movements, and it would be nice to have more data to compare these. We would also like to measure heart rates when they dive and see how this compares to humans’ [heart rates].