Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

The Secret To Chimp Strength

Date:
April 8, 2009
Source:
University of Chicago Press Journals
Summary:
An evolutionary biologist argues that humans may lack the strength of chimps because our nervous systems exert more control over our muscles. Our fine motor control prevents great feats of strength, but allows us to perform delicate and uniquely human tasks.

Research suggests that humans may lack the strength of chimps because our nervous systems exert more control over our muscles.
Credit: iStockphoto/Jeryl Tan

February's brutal chimpanzee attack, during which a pet chimp inflicted devastating injuries on a Connecticut woman, was a stark reminder that chimps are much stronger than humans—as much as four-times stronger, some researchers believe. But what is it that makes our closest primate cousins so much stronger than we are? One possible explanation is that great apes simply have more powerful muscles.

Related Articles


Indeed, biologists have uncovered differences in muscle architecture between chimpanzees and humans. But evolutionary biologist Alan Walker, a professor at Penn State University, thinks muscles may only be part of the story.

In an article published in the April issue of Current Anthropology, Walker argues that humans may lack the strength of chimps because our nervous systems exert more control over our muscles. Our fine motor control prevents great feats of strength, but allows us to perform delicate and uniquely human tasks.

Walker's hypothesis stems partly from a finding by primatologist Ann MacLarnon. MacLarnon showed that, relative to body mass, chimps have much less grey matter in their spinal cords than humans have. Spinal grey matter contains large numbers of motor neurons—nerves cells that connect to muscle fibers and regulate muscle movement.

More grey matter in humans means more motor neurons, Walker proposes. And having more motor neurons means more muscle control.

Our surplus motor neurons allow us to engage smaller portions of our muscles at any given time. We can engage just a few muscle fibers for delicate tasks like threading a needle, and progressively more for tasks that require more force. Conversely, since chimps have fewer motor neurons, each neuron triggers a higher number of muscle fibers. So using a muscle becomes more of an all-or-nothing proposition for chimps. As a result, chimps often end up using more muscle than they need.

"[A]nd that is the reason apes seem so strong relative to humans," Walker writes.

Our finely-tuned motor system makes a wide variety of human tasks possible. Without it we couldn't manipulate small objects, make complex tools or throw accurately. And because we can conserve energy by using muscle gradually, we have more physical endurance—making us great distance runners.

Great apes, with their all-or-nothing muscle usage, are explosive sprinters, climbers and fighters, but not nearly as good at complex motor tasks. In other words, chimps make lousy guests in china shops.

In addition to fine motor control, Walker suspects that humans also may have a neural limit to how much muscle we use at one time. Only under very rare circumstances are these limits bypassed—as in the anecdotal reports of people able to lift cars to free trapped crash victims.

"Add to this the effect of severe electric shock, where people are often thrown violently by their own extreme muscle contraction, and it is clear that we do not contract all our muscle fibers at once," Walker writes. "So there might be a degree of cerebral inhibition in people that prevents them from damaging their muscular system that is not present, or not present to the same degree, in great apes."

Walker says that testing his hypothesis that humans have more motor neurons would be fairly straightforward. However, he concedes that testing whether humans have increased muscle inhibition could be a bit more problematic.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Chicago Press Journals. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Alan Walker. The Strength of Great Apes and the Speed of Humans. Current Anthropology, 2009; 50 (2): 229 DOI: 10.1086/592023

Cite This Page:

University of Chicago Press Journals. "The Secret To Chimp Strength." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 April 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090330200829.htm>.
University of Chicago Press Journals. (2009, April 8). The Secret To Chimp Strength. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 28, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090330200829.htm
University of Chicago Press Journals. "The Secret To Chimp Strength." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090330200829.htm (accessed November 28, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Plants & Animals News

Friday, November 28, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

New Dinosaur Species Found in Museum Collection

New Dinosaur Species Found in Museum Collection

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Nov. 27, 2014) A British palaeontologist has discovered a new species of dinosaur while studying fossils in a Canadian museum. Pentaceratops aquilonius was related to Triceratops and lived at the end of the Cretaceous Period, around 75 million years ago. Jim Drury has more. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Classic Hollywood Memorabilia Goes Under the Hammer

Classic Hollywood Memorabilia Goes Under the Hammer

Reuters - Entertainment Video Online (Nov. 26, 2014) The iconic piano from "Casablanca" and the Cowardly Lion suit from "The Wizard of Oz" fetch millions at auction. Sara Hemrajani reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Pet Dogs to Be Used in Anti-Ageing Trial

Pet Dogs to Be Used in Anti-Ageing Trial

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Nov. 26, 2014) Researchers in the United States are preparing to discover whether a drug commonly used in human organ transplants can extend the lifespan and health quality of pet dogs. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
From Popcorn To Vending Snacks: FDA Ups Calorie Count Rules

From Popcorn To Vending Snacks: FDA Ups Calorie Count Rules

Newsy (Nov. 25, 2014) The US FDA is announcing new calorie rules on Tuesday that will require everywhere from theaters to vending machines to include calorie counts. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins