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Chimps Make Fashion Statement By Wearing Grass in Ear

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It appears that a troop of chimpanzees have become quite the fashionistas and trendsetters in the primate world.

A troop of primates at the Zambi-based, Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, have decided to adorn their ears with blades of grass. The “grass-in-ear behavior,” as scientists have termed it, seems to have no obvious purpose other than to make a fashion statement and start a new tradition.

“Our observation is quite unique in the sense that nothing seems to be communicated by it,” said study author Edwin van Leeuwen, a primate expert at the Max Planck Institute, in The Netherlands.

In order to make sure that this new interest in creating ear accouterments was actually a tradition, and not just chimpanzees randomly sticking grass in their ears, van Leeuwen and his colleagues spent a year observing four groups of primates at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust sanctuary. Although all the chimps lived in the same grassy area, only one group performed the grass-in-ear-behavior. This lead scientists to conclude that there are no genetic or ecological factors that influenced this behavior, therefore, the only thing that would account for it, is culture.

Lydia Luncz, a primatologist at the max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, who was not involved with the research said that the study shows that the chimps who learned to put grass in their ears did so through the “natural transmission” of new behavior.

The new fashion trend was first inspired by a senior chimpanzee named Julie, who decided one day that she would look very pretty sporting a long-stemmed piece of grass from one ear. It was not long before this new sensation caught on, and eight of the other twelve members in her group also adopted the trendy new look. The chimps even continued to wear their new accessory after their fashion icon passed away.

“Everybody can wear rings in their ears, but you have to come to the idea to do it,” said van Leeuwen. The primates did a little investigating before they decided that they were willing to adorn themselves with this new look. The eight chimps who adopted the grass-in-ear tradition, and whom continued it after Julie’s death, repeatedly inspected her behavior before trying it themselves.

“The chimps would pick a piece of grass, sometimes fiddle around with it as to make the piece more to their liking, and not until then try and stick it in their ear with one hand,” van Leeuwen said. “Most of the time, the chimps let the grass hanging out of their ear during subsequent behavior like grooming and playing, sometimes for quite prolonged times. As you can imagine, this looks pretty funny.”

As silly as it may seem to us, the grass-in-ear behavior is not far removed from a human fad. “Any kind of subculture fad in human culture, I’d say, could be the parallel to this grass-in-ear behavior,” van Leeuwen says. “Perhaps wearing earrings or certain kinds of hats.”

From the perspective of anthropology, when we look at these chimps who decided to make ear adornments part of their culture, what we are also seeing is one of the profound steps that our own ancestors took. Although a blade of grass in the ear seems rather insignificant, we would not have Internet, buildings, engineers, fashion designers, artists, or any of the comforts that we have created for ourselves, without one of our hairy ancestors having the idea of fashion, culture, and hitting things with rocks and sticks.

That single piece of grass shows artistic conceptualisation, pre-planning, tool-use and culture. That makes it one of the most awesome grass blades in a couple of million years.

Photo Credit: Edwin van Leeuwen

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