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Chimpanzees have police, too. Now, researchers are discovering what makes these simian enforcers of the peace step into conflicts, findings that could help shed light on the roots of policing in humans.

Animals handle conflicts within groups in a variety of ways, such as policing, where impartial bystanders intercede when disputes crop up. Policing, which has been seen in chimps, gorillas, orangutans and other primates, differs from other forms of intervention in that such arbiters are neither biased nor aggressive — they are neither supporting allies nor punishing wrongdoers.

Policing is risky, however, since it involves approaching two or more combative squabblers, which may lead to would-be arbiters becoming the targets of aggression themselves. To find out why primate policing evolved despite such risk, scientists took a closer look.

The researchers analyzed one group of chimpanzees in a zoo in Gossau, Switzerland, for nearly 600 hours over two years. This group experienced a great deal of social tumult — zookeepers there introduced three new adult female chimps, upsetting the former order, and a power struggle also led to a new alpha male. The investigators also looked at records of chimp policing behavior at three other zoos.

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