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Awwwwwwwwwwwwwww. Image credit: Tambako the Jaguar Flickr

St Andrews professor: Chimpanzees have ‘academic families’


Unrelated chimpanzees will ‘adopt’ an orphan in their community in a similar fashion to the ‘academic family’ system at the University of St Andrews, new research has found.

St Andrews psychologists Dr Catherine Hobaiter and Professor Klaus Zuberbühler have discovered not only that orphaned siblings who share a mother will adopt one another, but that unrelated chimps will adopt youngsters with whom they have social ties.

The relationships between academic family members grow in similar ways. They begin through chance encounters and shared interests, then grow through spending time together as ‘brothers’, ‘sisters’ and ‘parents’.

Orphaned siblings

The study, which focused on the Sonso chimpanzee community in Uganda, observed two types of adoption: when an orphan had older siblings from the same mother, and when they didn’t.

When an orphan’s older siblings were present, they would adopt and care for their younger brothers and sisters, forming what the researchers called ‘maternal sibling pairs’. The older sibling (from then on considered the adoptive ‘parent’) would carry the younger sibling, share food with them and protect them from external threats.

These pairs were strongly preferred to an older, unrelated chimpanzee adopting the orphan.

While that’s not strictly true for academic families, students sometimes find that they form stronger bonds with their ‘siblings’ (with whom they might be closer in age and have more in common) than their older, busier ‘parents’.

Awwwwwwwwwwwwwww. Image credit: Tambako the Jaguar Flickr

Awwwwwwwwwwwwwww. Image credit: Emmanuel Keller (Tambako the Jaguar)/Flickr.

Social bonding

Yet when no maternal siblings were present, unrelated adults would sometimes adopt an orphan in their community – but only once a social bond had developed between both parties.

Here at St Andrews, the same holds true. Prospective parents often meet their future children based on shared interests, whether that’s at DocSoc, archery club or even the Union’s Disney Bop. A few minutes of chatting (not as daunting as it seems, since you’re both there for the same reason) can sometimes be all it takes to net yourself not just an entire academic family, but a new friend.

As Dr Hobaiter told The Sinner,

We see many different kinds of adoption in wild chimpanzees. Sometimes siblings care for each other, sometimes an unrelated adult adopts the young orphan, but it’s the formation of social bonds between individual that are key.

“Just as when students start a new life at university, finding their ‘academic family’ means they have to take the time to form social bonds with the people around them, whether that’s with their fresher ‘siblings’ or their new academic ‘parents’.”

So take a leaf from the chimpanzees’ books and find your family by making friends.

The full research paper can be found HERE.

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