19-May-12 Termite Bonanza
When I first arrived there was a man from a local NGO installing a fancy weather station at Gombe that will contribute to a larger project monitoring climate change in the whole Albertine Rift system. Ironically, he was delayed in his mission by the onslaught of rain that occurred upon my arrival. He remained upbeat and informed us that we only had a few days left of rain because the rainy season ends on May 15. I’d heard this date thrown around in Kinshasa but had never heard someone in Tanzania proclaim the magical abilities of this date. But sure enough the rain stopped a day or two before May 15 and had left us blessedly alone since. My first day out with the chimps we endured an hour of rain. The rain itself isn’t that bad. Nasibu constructed a little tent with his poncho and we settled down under the tree where our chimp was doing the same. I stayed remarkably dry and emerged after the rain refreshed. Unfortunately it’s the aftermath that is the worst part. The entire forest is wet and you must spend the rest of the day scrambling through mud and wet vegetation all while dealing with constant drips from the trees overhead. By the end of the day I was thoroughly soaked and covered in dirt. We made it three days after May 15 without a single rain drop but yesterday the magic of May 15 let us down.
After a few days of long long searches I was pleased to find Zella before eight o’clock. She was back with her mom, though little brother Zinda still seems to be traveling without her, and a small group of chimps. Even with three research teams following the little merry band of chimps we still managed to briefly lose them up the cliff face of the Mukenke waterfall. Fortunately it only took 45 minutes of frantic searching to relocate them as they casually groomed each other on a cliff face. The serene grooming session was interrupted with the grumbles of thunder coming from afar that soon descended on Mukenke. This time, the group was quite thoughtful and took shelter under a large tree that was virtually completely covered in michaka or vines and overgrowth. There was plenty of room for all of us and I didn’t even need to get out my rain coat, providing a rare occurrence where I was actually thankful for michaka.
This last burst of rain triggered an outpouring of flying termites. I’m certainly not an entomologist so you’ll have to look elsewhere for details but the rain seems to trigger a release of the new brood of termites. They come out with wings that are designed for a short flight to allow them to start a new mound away from the parental mound. Now there are a lot of termite mounds in the forest and this particular storm sent them all abuzz so termites that can’t fly very well were everywhere. They were literally littering the forest floor. Normally it’s a lot of work for chimps to fish for termites. First they have to find the right tool, modify it by stripping off the leaves and then patiently dip it into a hole and eat the piddly number of termites that bite the stick during each dip. The patience that they show in this capacity is truly amazing and sometimes they’ll fish for hours on end. Yesterday was different though and the chimps benefitted mightily from the termite bonanza. All they had to do was bend over and essentially lick the masses of termites off the ground. Wilkie, an older adult male and Trezia, Zella’s mom, embraced the moment and couldn’t get enough of the termites. Zella was hesitant at first and spent the first hour simply watching her mom and Wilkie but once she got the hang of it and realized how easy this was she zealously lapped up the termites. She was so intense in her pursuit that she ended up getting separated from Wilkie and Trezia and spent the rest of the afternoon alone before meeting up with her older brother Zeus in the waning hours of the day. Chimps certainly aren’t always graceful animals and this rare form of termite fishing kept all of us researchers entertained for the better part of the day. And I can only hope that the release of the termites also corresponds with the true end of the rainy season!