A gorilla named Zola became famous on the internet in 2011 when the Calgary Zoo uploaded a video showing him spinning on his heels and knuckles with a big grin on his lips. Zola, a so-called "break-dancing" gorilla, made a return in 2017 in a video that showed him spinning around a kiddie swimming pool with an enthusiasm comparable to the most dedicated human dancers at a rave.
The love for spinning in circles by humans, especially when they were young, can be seen through the popularity of merry-gorounds on playgrounds, fun park rides that revolve and the attraction of somersaulting over a hill. New research shows that humans aren't the only ones who enjoy spinning.
According to findings published in the journal Primates last month, other great apes also enjoy spinning to stimulate their senses, perhaps even to achieve altered mental states.
Marcus Perlman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Birmingham, England. He was the author of the study. It's amazing to learn that other primates also do this. They do it because it is fun and exciting.
Dr. Perlman was inspired by the Zola videos and turned to YouTube to see if other apes were performing the same behavior. He collected nearly 400 videos of great apes, other primates, and humans engaging in spinning behaviors. These included somersaulting down hills, rolling backwards, and pirouetting. The new paper, however, focuses on clips showing apes spinning around on ropes and ropelike materials.
Dr. Perlman, along with Adriano Lameira, primatologist and evolutionary psychology at the University of Warwick, England, discovered 132 instances of orangutans, bonobos, chimpanzees, and gorillas spinning ropes in 40 videos. Most of the videos featured captive apes. However, several included wild mountain gorillas climbing vines.
Researchers calculated the speed of the apes. The researchers found that the majority of apes spun at an average speed of 1.43 revolutions a second, which is comparable to aerialists and dancers who are professionally trained. The longest session lasted for 28 revolutions and the fastest was achieved by a Bonobo, clocking in at four revolutions per seconds.
Researchers observed that as an ape spun longer, it became more dizzy, letting go the rope, and then sitting or lying immediately. The researchers observed that apes would repeat the spinning and stopping process, averaging three sessions of spinning.
Dr. Perlman noted that the animals often spun with "play faces", implying they were having fun and not just trying to escape boredom.
Dr. Perlman stated, "There is something about their experience that they enjoy."
Catherine Hobaiter is a primatologist from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, who did not take part in the study. She agreed. She said that based on her observations of wild apes in the field "wild apes like to spin."
Apes and other animals have been known to do other things that can confuse the senses. These include ingesting psychedelics or fermented fruit containing alcohol. Perlman argued that it is not clear whether this behavior is deliberate or accidental. This study can provide the data necessary to begin exploring behaviors that could be evolutionary precursors of human desire to experience altered states.
Dr. Perlman plans to conduct a larger research project that will include hundreds of videos of nonhuman primate spinning. He also began collecting evidence that other species, such as grizzly and pandas, enjoy spinning.
Marc Bekoff is an emeritus cognitive ethologist and behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who was not part of the study. He said that studying such behavior would be valuable because "there's no reason a priori to believe that we are the only animals that engage in behaviors which intentionally produce altered state of consciousness."