Sunday, January 27, 2008


Today I was initially with a small party of chimps – Bandit (male #10 or 11 in hierarchy), K.L. (#3) and Bo (adolescent male) – and followed Bandit for most of the day as my focal subject. He is an older male (I'd guess over 30) and one that I think was high-ranking until just a few years ago. He was also one of the lower-ranking, older males that Margie Robinson (a former Master’s student of mine) found spent the most time affiliating with juvenile chimps at Fongoli. Her Master’s thesis research questioned whether these lower-ranking, older males could be affiliating with females’ offspring as a form of mating strategy (like “friendship” in baboons and the work of Shirley Strum). Hopefully, with data on the genetic relatedness of the Fongoli chimps (Fiona is currently collecting fecal samples for that purpose), we could also address whether these males might have sired the offspring with which they were affiliating.

But, I was going to describe the incident that happened today with the honeyguide (and Bandit). A honeyguide is a type of bird (the genus and species are Indicator indicator, in case you’re interested - and if that gives you any indication as to what the bird does) that is known for guiding humans and other animals, like honey badgers, to honey. Humans characteristically leave a bit of honeycomb stuck onto a twig for the bird after it guides them to a hive. I was familiar with these birds after having lived in Kenya for a couple of years, and I’ve been solicited by honeyguides here at Fongoli several times (they have a characteristic chatter when they attempt to lead something to a hive). I’ve always wondered if they ever tried to lead the chimps to honey, but I have never seen this.

On this day, at about 8:00 a.m., I was sitting and watching Bandit eat yet another Strychnos fruit (they actually wadge [think of a chaw of tobacco, without the spitting] the fruit pulp, then spit it out; the seeds are poisonous – thus the genus name, Strychnos). A honeyguide bird came and chattered at me for just a few minutes, but I wasn’t very responsive, so it then actually flew over to where Bandit was sitting and chattered at him. Now, I thought, I would get to see what would happen! In fact, Bandit appeared to be more interested in eating his fruit pulp because after a minute, he threatened the bird away with a shake of his arm (raised-arm threat if you want to get technical)!

At about this time, K.L. and Bo appear, and all three of these guys begin traveling more closely together, stopping and eating the Strychnos fruit, sometimes wadging it with dead leaves (which I hadn’t seen before, although we had seen them eating dry twigs with meat…). Anyway, the honeyguide decides to give K.L. a try and proceeds to follow him more closely and chatter for almost another hour. Maybe K.L. didn’t threaten the bird away like Bandit did. It even followed him up to the termite mound where Bandit was fishing. The honeyguide finally gave up, and I didn’t get my answer as to whether chimps follow these birds to honey – but I have seen that they are solicited by them at any rate. I assume that the honeyguides don’t do this to just any animal – that there must be some precedent in the past (not necessarily with this particular bird but with this honeyguide species in general…?) that incites this behavior.

At around noon, the party of chimps moved over to the waterhole near Djendji and met up with Lucille, her juvenile male Lex (about 4 years old), and her new baby, Sunkaro (a few months old), along with Frito, Farafa’s juvenile son. Farafa and Fanta (Farafa's infant daughter) showed up a little later. It was the first time I’ve seen Sunkaro, and she is a beautiful baby (granted, I’m a little biased). I saw, as my field assistants noted, that Lex is still being carried by Lucille on her back, even as she carries Sunkaro on her belly! This isn’t very common – or recommended! I was surprised, actually, that Lucille had another infant so quickly, but I was going on the fact that the average interbirth interval (time between births of a female’s offspring) at other chimps sites is five years, and that I expected that it might be even longer at Fongoli, given that I think this is a pretty harsh environment. It must be difficult to carry two “babies”, like that, especially as the dry season progresses. But, more on Lucille and her family – and what happens with Lex, who appears to feel the need to still be carried on another day…

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Today was the first day that I saw Mamadou since I’ve been back. I’d heard from my Ph.D. student, Stacy Lindshield, who was my project manager at Fongoli from August through December that Mamadou suffered a severe injury, probably a broken hip. At one point, he spent almost the whole day in a nest, and Stacy and the field assistants thought that he probably wouldn’t make it. He turned up, though, after about a month, able to use his left leg a little, but he was an entirely different Mamadou. When I left in August, he was 2nd highest ranking male and had been since 2005, when we were able to discern the complete male dominance hierarchy. Since he was first identified in 2002, I thought that he was probably high-ranking, based on the limited interactions we had seen and based on his behavior, which could be fairly aggressive towards others. He is famous for his water displays, being the only chimp that actually ends a display by leaping into a pool of water (although others will splash through the water as well), while generally the chimps climb into water very carefully, almost always maintaining a hold onto vegetation or the side of a pool. Mamadou is a young male. I estimate that he is around 20 years old, having been socially mature for less than half a dozen years. He was also very muscular previously.

Stacy had informed me how much weight Mamadou has lost but, fortunately, he had gained some back by the time I saw him on this day. He is much smaller, though, to say the least – about the size of a subadult male. He does indeed appear to have broken his hip (actually, probably the head of his femur where it articulates with his hip bone), as his left leg sticks out perpendicular to his body, rather than being in line with his other leg. His foot turns in or rotates backwards when he steps down on it, but he is able to bear some weight on it. I imagine that he probably sustained this injury in a fall, perhaps during a fight between males. These aggressive incidents often take place in trees and involve a lot of risky leaping, etc.

I observed Mamadou for about 3 hours but didn’t pursue him after the party came to Maragoundi, a shady ravine, where I would have been more obvious in my following of him. One of the rules of my protocol is to refrain from following individuals who may be more stressed out by our presence, such as adult females with offspring and the very old male, Ross. Now, it seems, Mamadou falls into that category. Still, it is remarkable that chimps can recover from some of the injuries that they do recover from. I do plan on collecting some data on Mamadou when he is part of a big party or under other circumstances when it seems less likely (to him) that I am targeting him for an observational follow. I want to see how much this injury has affected his behavior, and during the previous three years we had collected more data on Mamadou than probably any other chimp, owing to his excellent degree of habituation (he was never one to be intimidated!).

Mamadou has fallen in the ranks of the male dominance hierarchy, although I’m not certain just how far he has fallen, now that he has regained some of his strength. When I saw him first encounter the party I was with today, he pant-grunted (a sure sign of submission to a dominant individual) to K.L. (formerly 2 ranks below him) and Lupin (formerly 4-5 ranks below him in August), but he did not pant-grunt to Karamoko (formerly 7 ranks below him) upon Karamoko’s approach. It was thought that, when he first appeared following his month of absence, he was subordinate to virtually all of the other 10 adult males.

I’ll keep you informed on Mamadou – most of the researchers and visitors to Fongoli have taken a liking to him – I think due to his strong personality (we would say, if he were human). He is one of my favorite chimps, although, as a scientist one is not supposed to have favorites. That is hard to accomplish, being human and all, so I try to recognize any potential bias my feelings about the various chimps might have on my data collection. I think that, as a primatologist, denying such attitudes or feelings is more dangerous than assuming we are completely free of bias. At any rate, more to come on Mamadou...

Friday, January 18, 2008


Adult male 'Siberut': Don’t underestimate the hunting abilities of older males! (photo by Maja Gaspersic)

I spent most of the day following a small party of males, including Diouf, K.L., Siberut, Bilbo, Karamoko and the female Tumbo. It was a fairly normal morning until, at about 9:00a.m., I saw that Siberut had captured a juvenile vervet monkey! Out of only 3 observed monkey-hunting bouts, Siberut has been responsible for two – one of these was filmed by a National Geographic photographer (Kris Eckstrom) last summer. Siberut is an older male – I’d estimate in his late 20s or in his 30s; he has no upper incisors whatsoever, although his canines still come in handy for meat eating. I didn’t see how Siberut caught the monkey, although last summer he just ran it down as it leapt from a tree. This time, most of the monkey’s head was already eaten, which is typically how Fongoli chimps eat other primates (from the head down). What’s interesting to me is that I have not heard vervets give alarm-calls to chimps in these situations. Vervets are known to use a specific type of alarm-call for terrestrial predators, such as leopards or dogs (if they are predators of vervets in certain areas). They also use a specific alarm call for snakes and another for avian predators, as well as what we call a “strange human chutter” for unfamiliar humans (at Fongoli, they give the “leopard-alarm call” or terrestrial predator call to humans too, as some groups of people in this area hunt them). Rather than give any type of alarm-call for chimps, at least for chimps that are in close proximity, vervets here appear to remain quiet and employ crypticity as an anti-predator strategy. I interpret this as being an example of the drawbacks of alarm-calling (although in regards to other predators they obviously seem to benefit not only individual vervets but the group as well) when the predator is one that would use those alarm calls to locate prey and more often than not, successfully acquire them. Given their climbing abilities, chimps are more adept predators of vervets than leopards or other terrestrial predators, it would seem.

Anyway, back to Siberut and his monkey. Meat sharing is seen across chimp communities, and Fongoli is no exception. There is, however, what I refer to as “respect” for a hunter and his or her capture. Even though Siberut was surrounded by four males that were higher-ranking than him, only one attempted to coerce Siberut into giving him a piece of meat (this was Diouf, who swayed bipedally at Siberut, made as if to grab a piece of meat but was denied by Siberut; Diouf ranks about 4 or 5 in the dominance hierarchy, while Siberut ranks 10th out of 11). There was some sharing, however; some of it reluctant. Tumbo, the female, and K.L., 3rd-ranking male, as well as Karamoko (9th-ranking male) were especially persistent about “begging” from Siberut. This particular type of begging consists merely of sitting as close as one can to him and staring intently at the meat. Siberut allowed Tumbo to take a couple of pieces of meat from his hand. Some ‘chimpologists’ have interpreted this sort of behavior as “meat for sex”, but Tumbo was not in estrus, although they might make the argument that this was “meat for the prospects of future sex”. I think it is more complicated than that, although I don’t rule it out entirely. As you’ll see below, the highest ranking male (K.L.) did also get some meat (“meat in order to appease high ranking male”?) but so did another low-ranking male (Karamoko), while two middle ranking males (Diouf & Bilbo) got access only to the discarded carcass.
At any rate, Siberut moved away from the other chimps at least a half a dozen times as he ate “his monkey”, and initially both K.L. and Karamoko ate only scraps of meat that he had dropped. K.L. was finally allowed to take 2 pieces of meat from Siberut’s hand, and he was then given one arm of the monkey. Siberut attempted to give Tumbo the other arm, but K.L. takes it from her. Bilbo (ranking about 5th or 6th) approaches Siberut, who fear screams (while still eating monkey, which makes for a very garbled fear scream) and moves away; K.L. follows Siberut and reassures him by repeatedly touching his scrotum. Bilbo doesn’t get any meat. Tumbo is given some entrails and other bits – I can’t really make it out. Finally, Karamoko is given a small piece of meat from Siberut’s hand. It was about this time that Diouf made his aggressive move for some meat but was denied (although he ranks at least 5 places above Siberut in the hierarchy). I see that K.L. mixes his meat with twigs, which is not uncommon – leaves are usually eaten alternately with meat as well. I call this ‘steak and salad’. At 9:37a.m., Bilbo finally gets the tail of the monkey, after Siberut has his fill and drops the carcass. Diouf and Bo (adolescent male who did beg as well but got nothing) are the only ones who did not apparently get any meat. Both examine the last of the carcass but leave it. I went to examine it and found it to be only the skin and part of the tail nearest the base. I would have left it too. The whole “meal” took about 40 minutes, and the rest of the day was pretty calm comparatively! The chimps rested for about 5 hours during the middle of the day, which will only lengthen as the weather gets even hotter toward the latter part of the dry season, and finally made their way to Tukantaba to drink (from a ‘well’ they dug in the stream bottom) and, finally, to nest.

January 15, 2008

After a few days of business in Kedougou, I went back out to follow the chimps again. I didn’t find them until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, after about 6-7 hours of walking! They were at a spot in the Fongoli stream where there has been a little water in past years. Otherwise the stream is virtually dry at this time of year, even though it is still early dry season. In fact, I was just standing there taking a GPS point when I heard something in the bamboo on the bank. It turned out to be Bilbo, munching on some bamboo pith, about 5 meters from me! I followed him, K.L., and Lupin (2 other adult males) and Bo (an adolescent male whose aged mother, Wilema, disappeared a few years ago) until around 4pm, when I saw that Tumbo (a young female, of National Geographic “spear hunting” fame) and probably some other chimps had joined them. Then, at the end of the day, there must have been another fusion event – there was a lot of excitement, as if a high-ranking male had turned up. There were a number of chases and fights that took the party in a large semi-circle of about a kilometer. By the time they went to bed at 7pm, it was dark, and Fiona (the PhD student from Cambridge studying nesting) could only see one individual actually build their nest. At least they are only a 45-minute walk from camp tomorrow morning, which means leaving at 5:30 (that’s late!)!!

Monday, January 14, 2008

First Day with Chimps on my trip back

Saturday, January 12, 2008
We (Jill and Michael) were on our way to Djendji to look for chimps so that Michael could film some for the Primate Behavior distance course. Lupin was the only chimp seen yesterday. Lupin is a young adult male who appears to be moving his way up the dominance hierarchy of 11 males. Fiona (a Ph.D. student from Cambridge University) and Johnny (my head field assistant) last saw him there at 6:30 in the evening. Djendji is about an hour's walk from Fongoli village camp, but on the way we actually heard pant-hoots not far from Sakoto (which is only about a kilometer from Fongoli village) and found Karamoko (an adult male and number 9 in the hierarchy) and some females (maybe Farafa with her infant daughter Fanta and her juvenile male Frito), and heard some males. We could never find the males so went on to Djenjdi, where they finally showed up. It was Yopogon (adult male, number 2 in hierarchy), Bilbo (adult male at about 5 in the hierarchy) and Jumkin (an adolescent male who hangs out with the adult males these days rather than his mom) and they all made their usual noisy appearence. After spending a very long time drinking, they rested awhile and then preceded to eat a lot of bamboo pith, which can't taste like much of anything at this time of year. We left them there at Djendji after losing sight of them in the bamboo at about 5pm. They were a little skittish around the video camera, but Michael got a few shots of them, especially a good one of Jumkin drinking inside the small cave that is the source of the water here at Djendji. We thought we might hear other chimps on the way back to Fongoli but no such luck. They appear to be scattered around in small parties, eating Lenke seeds and Bombax costatum flowers. It was great to see them on the first day out after a long time anyway...!