Why Do Chimpanzees Throw Poop?

Anolis01/iStock via Getty Images
Anolis01/iStock via Getty Images

Like simian Nolan Ryans, chimpanzees have garnered a reputation among the rest of the animal kingdom for their pitching prowess. Unfortunately, it’s not baseballs they’re tossing. Chimps have a habit of attacking bystanders by throwing their own feces, tossing poop around like relief pitchers at the bottom of the ninth. It's yet another reason they will never make a good pet.

Why do they do this? And could turd-tossing actually be a sign of intelligence?

According to the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, this type of behavior isn’t usually seen in free-roaming chimps in the wild. While the species is still prone to throwing things, they usually stick to rocks or branches when they want to express their annoyance. In captivity, foreign objects are not usually in abundance, and chimps that are feeling frustrated or anxious will instead opt to toss the one thing that’s in plentiful supply: poop.

Ease of access is not the only reason a chimpanzee will launch feces. When a chimp is in captivity, throwing poop is likely to cause a reaction—either from zoo employees or guests. Chimps will begin to associate the act (throwing fecal matter) to a response (usually surprise or horror). Though this behavior isn’t limited to them—howler monkeys in Belize also do it—chimps are probably the most well-known example. In tossing their crap, chimps realize that they can control the behavior of others to some degree. If they throw an overhand turd, people will run.

A chimpanzee is pictured
abzerit/iStock via Getty Images

While it would be easy to associate throwing poop with limited intelligence, the opposite might be true. In a 2012 study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, researchers at Emory University found that chimpanzees who had good aim when throwing things had more development in their motor cortex, where physical actions are coordinated. They also had better communication between the cortex and Broca’s area, a portion of the frontal cortex that helps process language in humans. Their left brain hemispheres, which control right-handed behavior, demonstrated more development. The rocket-armed chimps were also typically better communicators within their social groups.

Another indication that hurling poop fastballs is for intellectuals: It might be premeditated. A 2009 article published in Current Biology described a chimp named Satino, a resident of Sweden’s Furuvik Zoo in the 1980s and 1990s, who demonstrated real scheming. Satino was an aggressive chimp (he eventually killed a fellow male chimp) who often tossed rocks at visitors watching him from behind a fence. Because Santino always seemed well-armed, zookeepers investigated his enclosure and found that Santino had been stockpiling rocks from the moat that separated him from the fence. Santino made sure to do this before the zoo opened so he would have ammunition at the ready. He even chipped away at big concrete rocks to craft dinner plate-sized projectiles. Other chimps have been observed to poop in their hands and then wait for an annoying human to pass by.

Lots of things might cause chimps to feel disgruntled. In the wild, it might be having their buttons pushed by other primates. In zoos, they might be upset that people are staring at them and that they're limited in their movements. If you happen to be among those observing chimps in a facility, bear in mind that they might get a little upset. And depending on their aim, so will you.

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Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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