Last Night’s TV – Natural World: The Chimpcam Project

by Lynn Connolly

This was a fascinating film, though actually not because of the chimps being given a camera inside a sturdy box; that part of the experiment actually fell rather short of being anything terribly interesting, but the chimps learning processes in the rest of the documentary were a treat to watch.

The Chimpcam Project was the brainchild of Betsy Herrelko, an American PhD student who wanted to learn more about how the cognitive abilities of chimps would manifest when taught to respond to a touch-screen and images of other chimps.

And the archive footage of other similar experiments was equally enthralling. We saw chimps adding up, using symbols to communicate, recognising words and objects and generally demonstrating that the difference of 2% in their DNA from ours isn’t necessarily a wide gulf.

However, the title of the programme – and the project – rather misled the viewer. The chimps were indeed given a camera – as I mentioned earlier, safely tucked away inside a chimp-proof box – but they were not taught or asked to associate with the purpose of the camera.

The only interesting thing to come of giving them the boxed camera was that some of the chimps recognised the screen as being similar to the one they used in the Research Pods at Edinburgh zoo.

In the Pods, they’d learned that they were rewarded for touching the images of coloured balls, and it took very little time for them to understand that whether random or sequential, if they touched the balls on screen, they got a peanut for their efforts.

This was then moved onto showing images from around the chimps’ enclosure as well as the room where their food was prepared, and one chimp in particular, Cindy, cottoned on quickly that if she touched the image of the food prep room, the image would enlarge for ten seconds, giving her the opportunity to see her dinner being prepared.

Another very interesting moment came when the chimps were shown footage of other chimps in the wild. Rather than touch the screen for a reward, many of the chimps simply watched, just like we’d sit back and watch TV.

Some of them did touch the screen, but it was speculated that this was in an attempt to get ‘closer’ to the images they were seeing rather than for reward, since they didn’t then look to the food chute for their treats.

Overall, the entire film was incredibly interesting; to me anyway. I’ve always been enthralled by chimpanzee behaviour and watching any experiment involving them is a must-see for me. However, as I said, the cam part fell rather flat.

We were shown “the world’s first” footage shot entirely by chimps, but it mainly consisted of licking the box and screen to get any interesting food residue. But nonetheless, an intriguing watch.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.