Science FAIL

By JoCo May 11, 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.


Sam says

The temptation to respond "Also, X" with the obvious choice of X is nearly impossible to ignore, but I think it's safe to assume that it would not last.

MP says

I wish I had nothing better to do than blog about whether or not chimps can swim.

Farris says

Hey, in Quantum Leap, when Sam leaped into a chimp, he could swim and the others couldn't.

It was on television, so problem solved.

Andrew says

As a great ape who has had the opportunity to swim, I can say without a doubt that "great apes can't swim" is untrue for at least some of the species in family Hominidae .

manstraw says

giraffes don't need to know how to swim. their head are always above the water. except in the deepest ocean, which almost never comes up for them.

UltraNurd says

Clearly, manstraw has never heard of the now-extinct deep-sea giraffe, which were once the inspiration for many tales of sea monsters. Their extremely long neck resulted in a noticeably delay in neural transmission between their brains and their bodies, with the expected results.

Angelastic says

Yeah, what Andrew said. I am a great ape (and I mean really great!), and I can swim.

Jokermage says

Humans = Bipedal Ape-Monkey-Fish

Baddox says

I'm pretty sure armadillos can't swim. I did a report on them in 5th grade (in 1998) and found that at least one type of armadillo was known to cross streams by holding its breath and simply walking along the bottom, since they're so heavy (read: dense).

Baddox says

Also, if you've seen Planet Earth (the documentary), you've seen plenty of monkeys (dunno about apes) swimming.

Zacqary Adam Green says

Myth. Busters. Now.

Charlie "Pmptendo" says

Well if any of you watch MonsterQuest you would have seen that not only can Chimps and orangutans swim, So can sasquatch so beware !!

@jimthompson says

According to Penn Jillette, in the great story that started the "Monkey Tuesday" tradition on his old radio show, chimps HATE the water, which may be why people say they can't swim.

I don't buy the "body fat" argument. Michael Phelps doesn't have an ounce of fat on him, and yet I'm pretty sure he can swim.

But I'm not here to argue the question - when you ask why people don't start throwing monkeys into pools, I can report that people have. There's the sad story of Mabel the Swimming Monkey, who died in a University of Toronto pool, but not because she couldn't swim. Here are several versions of the story:

* ESR's Jargon File

* A version posted to the RISKS digest

* Eric Postpischil's version

None of these stories mention what kind of monkey Mabel was, but all of them end with the moral "Always mount a Scratch Monkey.

M_pony says

I personally tend to dislike non-human primates (though I can totally deal with the multitudinous monkey references in your work, dude). I do like giraffes, though.

Also, humans must have at least ~5% bodyfat to function, even though it sometimes may not look like it. Remember, human bodyfat is not all at the surface.

Also also, Mythbusters are totally your chums on Twitter: get -them- to do the legwork on this one.

Matt Brodeur says

I went to a zoo in Florida years ago and they had a primate exhibit with a bunch of different apes on different islands. You rode around in a boat to see them all. There were no fences around the islands. The boat guide said they all stay on their respective islands because they don't like the water.

MarcyT says

From Jane Goodalls' web site:

Do chimpanzees swim?

In general chimpanzees do not like to swim. Chimpanzees have stocky bodies that prevent them from being strong swimmers. Many chimpanzees, however, enjoy splashing around and playing in water.

Cotterpin says

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.

Memphisto says

Well, I honestly don't know if it's true that chimps can't swim but a possible origin for the idea may be Edgar Rice Burroughs TARZAN OF THE APES. I haven't read it since I was about 10 but I seem to remember that when Tarzan was a boy he amazed his chimp friends because he could swim and they could not.

As to the body fat argument, Phelps is a poor example because most other primates have much more dense musculature, which makes them heaver (and way stronger). FWIW, and not totally off the subject, women float more easily than men because they have a higher percentage of body fat (= lower percentage of muscle mass, which is heaver).

Angelastic says

Not quite true, Cotterpin... drop a baby younger than 4 months old in the middle of a lake and it will swim and hold its breath. Then it will drown, because let's face it, human newborns are pretty useless, they can't even walk on land. But they do have swimming and walking reflexes. The 'real question' is, why do humans lose those reflexes and then have to re-learn how to swim and walk?

Molly says

I found out from a Snapple lid that giraffes have no vocal cords.

I know.

I know.

I'm just as upset as you are.

PonderousMan says

OMG... if giraffes have no vocal cords AND they can't swim... then there is some *serious* songwriting waiting to be done.

Of course, given the audience, it may have already been done - but if not, then, well, then, I *double dog dare you*, JoCo and Molly!

(Hmm, would it be too far to suggest maybe it could be a collaborative work? Or failing that, maybe an unofficial "rematch" between two SongFu winners?)

(Yes, I know it isn't *really* a rematch, but that sounds better *smirk*)

averageJon says

Merely average apes can't swim. Great apes don't have to.

Jeremy says

I submit the humble garden snail as an animal that can't swim. Thus making the whole debate about great apes moot.

At least, I don't think it can....

Zac says

That ape isn't so great.

5_Five says

Garden snails if put in a bucket of water will snail-a-long to the surface, does that count as swimming?

Patrick says

hey - I'm a chemist. I don't understand anything bigger than a molecule.

Caleb says

@Patrick: Insoluble molecules can't swim either, right? So it's kinda the same.

jam says

Was it that giraffes can't swim and elephants can't jump, or was it the other way around?

Seth says

I did see one of those "amazing video" shows a few years back and it was a clip of a chimpanzee who fell into the moat surrounding his pen at a zoo. A zoo patron then jumped in and pulled the chimp to shore then swam back out into the moat to await rescue so the chimp couldn't attack. The narrator did say that great apes couldn't swim. The chimp looked like he was drowning to me, and stopped just short of saying "hey I'm a chimp and I'm not swimming, in fact I may be drowning."

swede1962 says

If the Federal government is going to spend $2,600,000 to study Chinese hookers, and $400,000 for gay bar-hoppers in Argentina, WHY NOT spend 8 or 9 million on swimming monkeys?!!

Percephene says

I remember when I was younger reading a book about how pigs can't swim because they would cut their own throat with their trotters. It was a Jonathan Livingston Pig type deal where one "special" pig could swim and he saved the day or something.

My husband tells me its complete lies and that they can swim. I'm not sure I'm convinced, they don't have a lot of swimming pools on the pig farm he used to work on so I don't really think he's qualified to state that so adamantly.

Also I LOVE that you got so taken with this idea you had to blog about it! Its been a while since we had such a random blog post! <3

Eric says

Baddox's comment above has merit: "Also, if you’ve seen Planet Earth (the documentary), you’ve seen plenty of monkeys (dunno about apes) swimming."

I own the Planet Earth DVD and can indeed verify that at one point it features a type of monkey that actually swims for fun (as well as to keep cool). There's even footage of them swimming underwater, just zipping through the water. So, not only does that kind of money know how to swim, it also knows to hold its breath underwater, just like we do.

There's another question for you - do any animals know to take a deep breath before going under?

Percephene says

@Eric, Whales & dolphins possibly? Uncomfirmed!

Also, don't snow monkeys in Japan hang out in hot pools? Does that count as swimming? Do you think they know about the rule about not putting your head under?

Kate says

Well the news just reported a story of a animal rescue in Australia. There was a kangaroo caught in a riptide. A surfer came by and poked it back to shore.

Ariel says

we all are waiting for the swimming monkey song U_U

Ariel says

Also, armadillos

Tom says

I recall in HS biology seeing a neat video showing various baby mammals instinctively knowing how to swim after just a couple days. They showed human babies kick appropriately even though they're not strong enough to actually swim. Tried to find it on youtube but was unsuccessful :(

rustymonkies says

i cant speak to the different mammals so well, but i raise praying mantises and they drown (though they float) when dropped in water. Come to think of it, a lot of bugs seem to just flounder about in water and not really go anywhere so it depends on what you mean by animal and what you mean by swim.

Seems to me floating prostrate on the waters surface is not swimming (any more than laying on your back on the floor of your living room is walking or crwling.)

An i am pretty sure bugs are in the animal kindom (as opposed to the various multicelled microorganisms, plants or fungi)

Dave says

Cotterpin's main error was small sample size. Try it with a hundred babies and report back to us.

gwynn says

so i just asked my friend, a primatologyst (however you spell that... the anthropologysts who study primates) and he said it depends on the species of chimanzees. they phisically can... but hate too, and will look at you with a death glare. gorillas though... will sink. it has nothing to do with body fat though. they aren't built for it and their fir weighs like 100lbs or something crazy when its wet... so they sink. ... so thats my claim. no swiming for them...

marten says

I imagine giraffe's don't generally have to swim, because of the whole really long neck thing

Renato says

If you drop a gorilla in a pool just to see if he'll drown you'd better HOPE he sinks and dies, otherwise he'll come out and be very, very pissed at you.

And you don't want to face an angry gorilla. You really don't.

Jen says

Ha! It's official. You have the BEST job ever.

Paul says

I may have gone to the same animal park as Matt. At the Lion Country Safari in West Palm Beach, the guide assured us that apes cannot swim because their muscle mass is so great it makes their overall body density too heavy for swimming. So I'd have to deduce from this that only couch-potato primates can swim, but none of them would expend the effort trying.

However, I heartily agree that Mythbusters needs to look into this one. All the better if at least one explosion is involved somewhere along the line.

Chuk says

holding breath; Dolphins know to take a deep breath before they go under.

Also I once dropped a dog out of a canoe and he sank like a rock. (But maybe he would have paddled back to the surface if I gave him a few minutes, instead I just pulled him out right away. Not very scientific, sorry.)

Miss_T says

@Jam: Elephants can swim. Video of them taken from underwater is pretty amazing; they hold up their trunks like snorkels to breathe with! So if what you're thinking is true, maybe they're the ones that can't jump. Or maybe no one's ever lived to tell about it...

Kismet says

Of course the youtube link didn't work, it wasn't a link. YouTube links have lots of numbers and letters in them. ^_^ You could search "see my chimp swim"... that might work...

I didn't come up with much... is a vid of monkeys swimming. I don't know. I'm leaning towards the chimps can swim but they don't like it. ^_^

Morgan says

Crabs and lobsters are animals. But, I don't think they swim. They just walk or crawl on the sea bottom.

Frank says

I think the real question is when the hell is a giraffe going to need to swim when its sporting a periscope for a neck?

David says

From what I've gathered from my various Zoo trips as a kid, most apes don't like water and don't know how to swim. Think I remember hearing something about a some orangutans that learned to swim though. There are a plethora of other animals that can't swim at all though. Like most tortoises.

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.

KneeJerk says

Chimps are not monkeys.

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.

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.

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.

Lena says

I submit to the committee: ants

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

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.

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!

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;

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.

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."

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.