Thursday, November 01, 2007

Washoe, RIP

Washoe, a chimpanzee who sent the field of primatology into a tizzy by learning American Sign Language, has died at age 42 after a short illness. From the age of 10 months, Washoe was raised by cognitive researchers R. Allen Gardner and Beatrix T. Gardner, who taught her to make recognizable signs in American Sign Language. She eventually learned about 130 signs.

This accomplishment was a great shock when it first was publicized in the late 1960s. Attempts to replicate this through the 1970s with other chimpanzees eventually showed that most of the communication between humans and chimps was prompted by imitating the human researchers. There was little spontaneity and no use of grammar. However, it did show that apes have the capacity for some of the basic rudiments of language and their intellectual functioning overlaps with humans in some ways.

Washoe spent the last 27 years of her life at a research facility run by Central Washington University where she continued in cognitive studies and served as a matriarch to a generation of younger chimpanzees. Apparently she shared some interests with her human friends:

"She had a gentle touch with them {the younger chimpanzees}, Dr. Jensvold said, and kept an eye on the habits — and footwear — of her human companions.

'She always checked out your shoes, and if you had new ones she’d sign for you to show them to her,' Dr. Jensvold said. 'Then she might sign something about the color. She was a real shoe lady that way.'”

1 comment:

margory said...

Rest in Peace, Washoe.

Alex the Parrot, another animal poet, died a few months ago, too.