The lighthearted documentary series profiling remarkable animals focuses on Panzee, a chimp whose learning abilities have stunned scientists. Not only does Panzee understand more English words than any other chimp in the world, she can also communicate with her human keepers, and has even developed a basic grasp of economics.

At Georgia State University’s Language Research Center, John Kelly has looked after a group of chimpanzees for 18 years. Of the four animals that currently reside in the centre, one stands out as the star of the show. “Panzee is kind of special,” says John. “We’ve raised her like a princess.” Panzee is helping scientists with their research into animal intelligence – and has exhibited some remarkable talents. Dr Mike Beran, an expert in primate linguistics, rates the chimp’s skills very highly. “Panzee is one of the most intelligent chimpanzees that you’re going to come across,” he says.

In order to demonstrate Panzee’s understanding of spoken English, Dr Beran sets her a vocabulary test. Using a joystick and a computer screen, Panzee responds to vocal cues by selecting the onscreen image that corresponds to a particular word. The test shows that she can recognise a number of words – from food items to places, verbs to people. “We don’t know what her upper limit is,” says Beran of Panzee’s vocabulary, “but a fair and conservative estimate is about 150 words.”

Panzee’s achievements are the culmination of years of research into chimpanzees’ language capabilities, but her success comes after a great deal of trial and error. The first project, in the 1940s, saw animal researchers announce that they had taught a chimp to speak. KJ and C Hayes claimed that Vicki, who they brought up alongside their own child, could say three words. In reality, however, their experiment was a failure, and went on to prove that chimpanzees are in fact incapable of speech owing to the limitations of their voice boxes. By the 1970s, researchers looked to computers to provide the key to communicating with chimps.

At the age of two, Lana was the first chimp in an audacious project using lexigrams – symbols that represent words. It was hoped that Lana would use these symbols to order food from a vending machine, and eventually to communicate with her keepers. This experiment proved unsuccessful until a human partner was introduced into the proceedings. Once Lana could interact with a human, she began to pick up the system, leading scientists to conclude that early and close human contact is central to learning for chimpanzees.

When Panzee was born in 1985, she was immersed in human culture from an early age and has been constantly exposed to language ever since. “The early years for chimpanzees are as critical for language acquisition as they are for human children,” explains Dr Beran. Thanks to a hands-on upbringing, Panzee can also use lexigrams to correctly identify all manner of objects. Panzee’s abilities have proved that all chimps have the potential to understand human language.

However, leading primatologist Dr Katja Liebal believes that chimps have their own complex system of communication – one which humans are only now beginning to understand. Through studying the gestures, facial expressions and physical displays of the chimps at Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire, Dr Liebal hopes to compile the world’s first chimpanzee dictionary. “Chimps don’t need language in their environment because they have a complex communicative system based on non-verbal communication,” she explains.

Back in Georgia, researchers show that Panzee’s amazing talents go beyond basic communication. Using lexigram tokens, Panzee is able to ‘buy’ her favourite foods from the keepers, showing an understanding of value and currency – and suggesting that chimps might be able to trade amongst themselves. “Panzee has opened up a world of possibilities,” concludes Dr Beran. “She is an extraordinary animal.”

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