From the Field Entry 3 by Kara Schroepfer


The G Family

There are a couple of iconic family lineages at Gombe that have been made famous through Jane Goodall’s books and documentaries.  Perhaps the most famous is the F family that was founded by Flo, a fairly ugly female, that nonetheless seemed to attract all of the males in group.  Her reproductive success has been matched by her offspring and the F’s continue to proliferate both in the Kasekela and Mitumba communities.  Then there is the G family, founded by Melissa!  The G family is fewer in numbers but the current matriarch, Gremlin, is doing her best to outcompete Fanny and the rest of the Fs.              I’ve spent a lot of time with the G family because Gremlin is the mother of the twins, Golden and Glitter who just turned 13, an age that is awkward even for a chimpanzee.  Gremlin also has three other children and one grandchild. Gaia is an adult female that has stayed in Kasekela and now has a son of her own, Google, who is about the same age as Gremlin’s youngest son, Gizmo (~2 yrs).  Lastly, there is Gimli, a precocious seven year old male stuck in the middle.  Over three days I have followed this family as they wandered around their range in the central part of the Kakombe valley.  The family is a little microcosm of the fission-fusion society among chimps, sometimes every member is there but Gaia and the twins also travel on their own or in different parties, joining up with their mother when they see fit.  On my first full day follow Golden was nowhere to be found but Gremlin, Gaia, Glitter and the kids spent the whole day together.

The G Family: Golden, Glitter, Gaia, Gremlin, Gimli, Gizmo & Google (in tree)

Unlike the small family units of Trezia and Sandi, the G family spent most of their day socializing.  In the morning they spent several hours with a large group of males, cementing relationships through grooming.  There are risks to associating with males as Glitter discovered when she found herself on the receiving end of the alpha male’s rage.  While Glitter cowered on the ground, Ferdinand jumped on her back and pounded her with his full body weight for a good 20 seconds.  It was all over quickly though and they resumed grooming as if nothing had happened in the interim.  Gremlin and co. eventually broke from the group of males and continued on their own, spending long chunks of time casually grooming one another.  Like many adolescents, Glitter was not always content to sit and relax.  She needed action and had devised a clever way to get the attention of the group.  Three times, when Glitter decided it was time to leave, she grabbed Gizmo, her mother’s infant, and casually walked off into the distance.  This served its purpose and each time Gremlin got up and went after her infant, though very casually, and they all continued on following Glitter’s lead.

On the second day, the family dynamic was a little different in that Golden joined the group.  Initially, Glitter was nowhere to be found, but after leaving their nest site Golden headed off directly down the mountain while Gremlin and Gaia took the easier route down the path.  As we stumbled down through the thickets we eventually made it to Golden, who in the interim, had met up with Glitter.  Then a few minutes later, Gremlin and Gaia joined the crew via the long way.  This played out a few more times during the day as the twins went off a different (always more difficult) way and were by themselves for small chunks of time before Gremlin and Gaia joined them.  In this way, the twins dictated the travel movement of the group.  At about midday the twins veered off again and headed directly to a large termite mound in an open woodland.  Up to this point, I had been ever so slightly disappointed in chimpanzee behavior.  I had basically seen a bunch of grooming, a bunch of eating and about 1 minute of aggressive interactions over a six day period.  I knew that I had to be patient but I was eager to see some of the behavior that makes chimps unique such as hunting or tool use.  Thus when Nasibu and I caught up with Amri who had the unenviable job of staying on Golden’s tail as she moved through the undergrowth I was ecstatic to see them termite fishing.

Golden gave up after only a minute or two of trying and instead climbed up into the overhanging tree to eat some easy-to-obtain Rukungu fruits.  Glitter, one the other hand, was persistent and patiently fashioned stick after stick in order to acquire the tasty termites.

Gaia and Gremlin termite fishing while Gizmo, Gimli and Google watch.

About 30 minutes later Gremlin, Gaia and co. caught up with the twins and immediately went in search of their own sticks.  Gremlin was very particular in her stick choice and though we were sitting about 10 meters away, every time she needed a new stick she came directly to us in search of the perfect tool.  After she approached us the first time, we moved out of the way, only to once again find ourselves in her path on her quest for the perfect tool.  After another move, Gremlin again headed our way, intent on finding an even better stick.  Glitter eventually had her fill and moved on down the path to begin an epic grooming session with Golden but Gremlin and Gaia fished for termites for almost an hour as the youngsters played in the trees above.  Unfortunately the fun had to end and the whole group moved off just before the sky opened up in a freak torrential downpour that found us huddled under a tree waiting for the rain to end.  The rain never ended and after 45 minutes we decided there was nothing to do but make a break for home.  At that point we were completely soaked so there was little motivation to continue waiting it out.  I fully expect the G family to continue providing eventful observations and I am willing to endure jaunts through thickets and torrential downpours if it means observing termite fishing and other intriguing behaviors.


About dukeprimate

About Kara Schroepfer: I’ll be spending the next 2.5 months on the shores of Lake Tanganyika studying the chimpanzees of Gombe. I’ve lived in East Africa before and have studied chimpanzees & bonobos in sanctuaries in Congo and baboons and Red Colobus in the field but never before have I seen or studied wild chimps nor have I been to western Tanzania. While here I will be following adolescent females to learn about female dispersal. Most female chimps leave their natal group when they reach maturity to reproduce in a neighboring group. However, some decide to stay, especially at Gombe. I will be gathering data to answer questions related to the behavioral, physiological and ecological changes that occur during dispersal and/or settlement into their adult communities. In the end, if all goes as planned, this will turn into my doctoral dissertation.
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One Response to From the Field Entry 3 by Kara Schroepfer

  1. Tania says:

    Fascinating and beautifully written!!

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