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For chimpanzees, salt and pepper hair not a marker of old age

July 14, 2020

WASHINGTON (July 14, 2020)--Silver strands and graying hair is a sign of aging in humans, but things aren't so simple for our closest ape relatives--the chimpanzee. A new study published today in the journal by researchers at the George Washington University found graying hair is not indicative of a chimpanzee's age.

This research calls into question the significance of the graying phenotype in wild non-human species. While graying is among the most salient traits a chimpanzee has--the world's most famous chimpanzee was named

"With humans, the pattern is pretty linear, and it's progressive. You gray more as you age. With chimps that's really not the pattern we found at all," Tapanes said. "Chimps reach this point where they're just a little salt and peppery, but they're never fully gray so you can't use it as a marker to age them."

The researchers gathered photos of two subspecies of wild and captive chimpanzees from their collaborators in the field to test this observation. They visually examined photos of the primates, evaluated how much visible gray hair they had and rated them accordingly. The researchers then analyzed that data, comparing it to the age of the individual chimpanzees at the time the photos were taken.

The researchers hypothesize there could be several reasons why chimpanzees did not evolve graying hair patterns similar to humans. Their signature dark pigmentation might be critical for thermoregulation or helping individuals identify one another.

Dr.

There has been little previous research on pigmentation loss in chimpanzees or any wild mammals, Dr. Bradley said. Most existing research on human graying is oriented around the cosmetic industry and clinical dermatology.

"There's a lot of work done on trying to understand physiology and maybe how to override it," Dr. Bradley said. "But very little work done on an evolutionary framework for why is this something that seems to be so prevalent in humans."

The researchers plan to build on their findings by looking at the pattern of gene expression in individual chimpanzee hairs. This will help determine whether changes are taking place at the genetic level that match changes the eye can see.

This study comes ahead of World Chimpanzee Day on July 14. GW's faculty and
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George Washington University

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