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Am J Phys Anthropol. 2013 Sep;152(1):156-62. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22338. Epub 2013 Jul 30.

Brief communication: Swimming and diving behavior in apes (Pan troglodytes and Pongo pygmaeus): first documented report.

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School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, 2193, Johannesburg, South Africa; Institute for Human Evolution, University of the Witwatersrand, 2193, Johannesburg, South Africa.


Extant hominoids, including humans, are well known for their inability to swim instinctively. We report swimming and diving in two captive apes using visual observation and video recording. One common chimpanzee and one orangutan swam repeatedly at the water surface over a distance of 2-6 m; both individuals submerged repeatedly. We show that apes are able to overcome their negative buoyancy by deliberate swimming, using movements which deviate from the doggy-paddle pattern observed in other primates. We suggest that apes' poor swimming ability is due to behavioral, anatomical, and neuromotor changes related to an adaptation to arboreal life in their early phylogeny. This strong adaptive focus on arboreal life led to decreased opportunities to interact with water bodies and consequently to a reduction of selective pressure to maintain innate swimming behavior. As the doggy paddle is associated with quadrupedal walking, a deviation from terrestrial locomotion might have interfered with the fixed rhythmic action patterns responsible for innate swimming.


aquatic locomotion; breath control; phylogenetic constraints; water use in primates

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