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…

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