Chimpanzee smiles

September 24th, 2013 by Debbie

One of the very first things I learned about chimpanzees when I started working in this field was how they smile. I went to a presentation before visiting the chimps that I eventually worked for at the (now former) CHCI, and they explained that when we were around the chimpanzees we needed to cover our top teeth.

This sounded so strange to me at the time. We tried a “chimpanzee smile” by covering our top teeth and showing our bottom teeth. It felt pretty silly to do, but they explained that a human smile is seen as a threatening expression to chimpanzees. When they are afraid or when they are trying to be intimidating, they will show all their top teeth and do what we call a “fear grimace.”

I was stunned. I knew I had laughed at commercials with “smiling” chimpanzees, gone to movies and even bought birthday cards because they were funny to me. I was upset with the fact that I had contributed to the industry that threatens and abuses chimpanzees in order to get that “funny” expression. I quickly learned that there’s a reason we call it a fear grimace—my first time seeing a chimpanzee conflict was when I truly knew that chimpanzees do not smile with happiness the same way we do.

From that moment on, I decided that I wanted to help educate others about what I had learned that day, and now I am very fortunate to be working not only as a caregiver at CSNW but also the advocacy coordinator for the sanctuary. I am very passionate about helping all of you help them! So in the future, try to avoid buying media that exploits chimpanzees and definitely subscribe to the Eyes on Apes Take Action alerts so you will know when there’s something you can help out with.

Here’s an example of a fear grimace during a conflict from a few years ago. Notice how Annie is showing all of her teeth:


And Foxie then responds in fear as well:


Chimpanzees rely so much on nonverbal behaviors (actually—so do humans, it’s just that we talk so much you don’t always notice the nonverbal stuff) so it’s really important to send social cues to convey what the context is. Since they can’t say “I’m really scared” they use all the nonverbal cues to let everyone around them know. They scream, they show all their teeth, they stand up to look intimidating, sometimes reach out for reassurance, and so on. The very opposite of these behaviors is covering their top teeth, play bowing instead of standing up, and laughing instead of screaming (amongst many other social signals to communicate “I’m being playful!”)

Here’s Burrito demonstrating a perfect playface:




Jamie and Foxie:

web jamie foxie laugh play box play face playroom IMG_0132

Missy and Jody:

web Missy JOdy playfaces YH IMG_1172


Annie with a huge playface (Missy's hand)

Negra and Missy:

Negra and Missy playing

7 Responses to “Chimpanzee smiles”

  1. Lucinda Almy-Hamilton says:

    This was wonderfully honest. I too used to laugh at chimpanzees in movies (remember Cheetah?). When I came to fully understand the nonverbal responses and facial expressions of chimpanzees I was astounded; I teach this in all my classes. I also love to see/hear a chimp laugh. It is wonderful!

    • Debbie says:

      Thanks Lucinda! I like to relate to the people I want to educate, and I think it helps to tell them my motivation for wanting to advocate for apes. I would imagine many people who are active in spreading the word about these issues at one point laughed at commercials or cards as well. Then when you learn the truth you want to make sure others like you learn the truth as well! Thanks for sharing and for teaching students about these issues, too.

      • Lucinda Almy-Hamilton says:

        Thank you Debbie. I teach Anthropology and dedicate at least 2 full presentations about nonhuman primates. It is so wonderful seeing and hearing the reactions from my students. They always thank me for the information…feels good. I had the most awesome experience (many years ago) as a volunteer at a zoo in Kansas; I was able to hold an infant chimpanzee and tickle her. Oh what a thrill it was seeing her smiling and laughing and her eyes twinkled.

        • Jesse Pryder says:

          Hi, I was just curious (nothing big). Have the chimpanzees ever laughed at your attempts to hide your top teeth? If someone was struggling to “chimpanzee smile” could th chimps pick up on that

          • Diana says:

            I suppose I’ve noticed them looking curiously at us – certainly our attempts don’t perfectly mimic an actual chimp smile. Meeting new chimpanzees with the chimp smile has worked well for me, personally – they seem to appreciate the attempt to use their language, facial expressions, and gestures and usually respond right away, particularly chimpanzees who don’t have humans around them who do these things.

  2. Wanda Trotta says:

    Hope, love, home, sanctuary
    It’s terrific to not only see cute photos of the “7” but to also learn something about their habits and mannerisms. I have read the blogs every day for three years now and I must say that every single one of them has been very much enjoyed. We “out here” may give a little to the sanctuary but you certainly give back to all of us with these blogs! They are always a pick-me-up when it is needed.
    So, thank you and here’s to hope, love, home, sanctuary for every one of us – Chimps and humans alike!

    • Debbie says:

      Thank you so much Wanda! It’s our readers like you that make the blog so worth it. We love writing posts, but we love hearing how it helps you relate to the chimps even more!