Science FAIL

May 11th, 2009

If you’ve been listening to me on the Twitter this morning then you’ll be tired of this, but here’s the thing. I made a dumb joke referencing an aphorism I have heard: “all animals can swim.” Then I started wondering if that was true. A lot of people replied saying that great apes can’t swim, in particular chimpanzees. That didn’t sound right to me, or at least it sounded like one of those things that everybody says that nobody really knows if it’s true or not (kind of like “all animals can swim”).

So I asked again on the Twitter: for reals? Great apes can’t swim? A lot of people responded “yes they can” or “no they can’t” which wasn’t helpful. And a lot of links came in, a lot of conflicting information. This site says they have too little animal fat and so they sink. This person says they can outswim an olympic swimmer (human, presumably) and tantalizingly links to a video called “seemychimpswim” that no longer exists. According to The Big Zoo they can only swim “if extremely excited” (?). And here’s a story about a swimming orangutan. From what I can tell, it’s kind of “some chimps can swim but mostly they hate it and are not good at it.”

Or worse, it’s still an open question, which is a terrible thought. What the hell scientists? What are we doing here? Can we please start throwing some monkeys into pools and taking notes? IT IS 2009, SERIOUSLY!

Also, giraffes.

62 responses to “Science FAIL”

  1. Simon says:

    Well, in the issue about all animals being able to swim I don’t think it’s true. I saw on a discovery channel program called “Dirty Jobs” or something like that that rhinos can’t swim. Apparently they’re too heavy to maintain themselves afloat even if pedaling with their legs. As to if great apes can or can’t swim, who cares. If rhinos can’t, it’s proven that not all animals can swim and therefore no longer interesting if great apes can or can’t.

  2. KneeJerk says:

    Chimps are not monkeys.

  3. Liz in Minneapolis says:

    Somewhat tangential, but why not: exploring the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.

    Straight Dope’s column on it, with commentary on other apes’ and land mammals’ abilities to swim/float – and also check out the Pliocene Pussycat link:

    The big deal about primates swimming, and liking or hating it, seems to be that we need to learn how to get our heads out of the water to breathe, since unless we’re backstroking, our heads face down into the water when we try to propel ourselves with our arms. We can lift them up and dog-paddle, but to go any kind of distance we need the streamlined, head-down form.

    Having observed some 8-year-olds in swimming lessons this weekend, it’s clearly NOT an easy skill to master even for humans. (Although I must say that, having been raised in the hippy mom-and-one-year-old-baby swimming lessons environment of the 70’s, I could have swum circles around these kids at, like, age 4. I was doing butterfly and breast stroke at 8 – these kids can’t do a proper front crawl!)

    *Why* have humans generally tended to make the effort to learn to swim? Eh, why do we do anything? We can, and it can be fun. Also, we tend to live near bodies of water, frequently make a living in or on the water, and learning how not to drown is a good survival tactic. Other primates (and many other terrestrial mammals) haven’t adapted to exploit the water for food or transport, so you get some occasional swimming monkeys having fun or macaques keeping warm and being social in Japan (or dogs playing fetch, hoofed mammals crossing rivers, tigers cooling off in pools, etc.,) but the rest will tend to avoid it if there’s no reason to risk drowning.

  4. Laura says:

    “Great Apes Can’t Swim” is a false statement. Humans are great apes, and CAN swim.

    With regard to chimpanzees, they don’t do well in water. They’ll splash around in shallow water, but in deep water, whether it’s because they “don’t know how” or their ratios are wrong (they are VERY heavy/muscular for their size), but they do sink.

    There are some gorillas ( that do actually venture into water, but I don’t know if it would qualify as “swimming.”

    It’s hard in this case even to lump gorillas/chimps/orangs into the same category, since their locomotor morphologies are different, and they spend different amounts of time in the trees. I’d believe more that an orangutan could swim than a gorilla. Or a bonobo more than a chimp.

    The point is, the only real natural swimmer of the Great Ape bunch is good old Homo sapiens.

    That’s the primatologist’s 2 cents.

  5. Zealot says:

    Haha, “IT IS 2009.” I say that a lot too. Particularly in reference to the fact that one must still PAY FOR WI-FI in most Starbucks in the Midwest.

  6. Lena says:

    I submit to the committee: ants

    They are either walking on top of the water or drowning in it.

  7. Bluebird says:

    Actually, according to David Quammen, Darwin’s approach to seeing if island iguanas will swim under duress was to throw a particular iguana into the ocean, repeatedly. It’s in Quammen’s book, The Song of the Dodo.

  8. Lucas Lundstrom says:

    So… Apes, monkeys etc. CAN swim, but many HATE swimming.
    Okay. Settled. Probably. Maybe. But what abut armadillos that someone mentioned? If you have an animal more or less built like an armored rock, then it really does not sound like it will be able to swim. And sparrows, anyone seen a sparrow do some laps for fun? Outside of a bird bath 1 inch deep. Butterflies? Worms? Look broadly enough and we can find animals that not only do not swim, but die pretty rapidly in water. Interesting question though! Now go write down three rhyme words each for Silver and Orange for a song I am working on.

    “# Cotterpin Says:
    May 11th, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    I think you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not ‘can ape’s swim’, it’s why are the great apes (including humans) the only animal that need to learn how to swim. Drop a kitten, puppy, …etc in the middle of a lake and they can swim. Drop a baby in the middle of a lake and they drown.”

    I don’t know where to start, so I just answer really short, true an concise:
    You are wrong. Human babies swim brilliantly.
    Ok, you get a little bit more. Go buy a Nirvana CD or hang out at Baby Swim at your local public bath. Or no, don’t. We just forget how to swim, but then, we tend to overload and shut down a lot of systems, skills etc pretty fast.

    Jonathan – Huge hugs for Still Alive!

  9. Nytsky says:

    Hello Jonathan;

    The first I have already submitted to the six word memoirs site:
    Universal creations require space to create.

    This one I created via your request:
    Opened portal entered Networld creating history.

    Be well;

  10. Shelley says:

    Pugs (dogs) can’t swim. They do sink right under water like the proverbial rock. Buy a flotation jacket for your pug or you will be diving to the lake bottom for it.

  11. SB says:

    I can’t believe there is only one wikipedia link in the comments responding to this question!

    Check out this page:

    According to it:

    “While tetrapods lost many of their natural adaptations to swimming when they evolved onto the land, many have re-evolved the ability to swim”


    “Humans do not swim instinctively, but nonetheless feel attracted to water, showing a broader range of swimming movements than other non-aquatic animals (Bender 1999: 119-169). In contrast, many monkeys can naturally swim and some, like the proboscis monkey, crab-eating macaque, and Rhesus macaque swim regularly.

    Large primates other than man generally do not like to swim. Wild chimpanzees and some gorillas will wade in very shallow water but will make no attempt to cross larger bodies of water. Orangutans don’t swim instinctively but will attempt it under pressure or if learned.”

  12. Eric says:

    [Laura said: ‘“Great Apes Can’t Swim” is a false statement. Humans are great apes, and CAN swim.’]

    I submit that humans are in fact FANTASTIC apes.