Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sign-language chimp Washoe dies at 42

Washoe, a female chimpanzee who for years has been living right up the road from me at Central Washington University's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, was widely regarded to be the first chimpanzee to ever show scientifically verified language production and comprehension. She's a very special girl, a celebrity ape, if you will.

According to a press release, she died of natural causes last night at the age of 42. Three younger chimps who also know some sign language remain at the institute: Tatu, 31, Dar, 31, and Loulis, 29, Washoe's adopted son. Washoe was the matriarch of the family.

Washoe was the only chimpanzee who participated in the language studies at CHCI who was born in the wild. She was named for Washoe County, NV, the place she lived for the first four years of "Project Washoe," an ambitious experiment begun in the 1960s by Beatrix and Allen Gardner, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada.

Previous attempts to teach chimpanzees to say words had failed. Only later did it come to be recognized that the vocal tracts of chimpanzees and humans are sufficiently different to prevent chimpanzees from articulating distinct sounds like humans can. Chimp hands are almost as dexterous as human hands though, so the Gardners embarked on the painstaking process of teaching Washoe to mould her hands in the form of signs from the lexicon of American Sign Language.

Roger Fouts, director of the CHCI, started out as a graduate student working with the Gardners. Eventually he took over for the Gardners and added more chimpanzees to the sign language studies. His best-selling book, Next of Kin, chronicles the history of Project Washoe and his personal experience working with Washoe.

According to the book, Washoe had a working vocabulary of about 250 words. She could follow spoken directions, communicate her wishes, and also string words together in a meaningful sequence - something that is considered to be the hallmark of language.

Although the question of whether chimpanzees can understand and use language remains open for debate, the fact remains that Washoe is a pioneer. She was the first chimpanzee to show that the question is even worth considering.

Project Washoe helped launch other ape language projects, namely Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's work with bonobos and Penny Patterson's work with Koko the gorilla.

... para El Dia de Los Muertos, Washoe, R.I.P.
Her memorial will be Nov. 12 and I am seriously considering going.

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