From the Field, Entry 7 Kara Schroepfer

Ferdinand keeping a close eye on Sandy as Samwise and Siri groom nearby

5-Jun-12  It’s tough being a female chimp

Sometimes when in the forest I ponder what it would be like to be a chimp.  Much of it seems like it would be incredibly amusing.  In particular I would love to be able to climb trees with minimal effort and balance on precarious branches, move through the michaka with nary a worry of getting stuck and gorging on delicious fruit for hours at a time.  Other perks include being able to carry your baby without much extra effort on your part and being freed from the stigma of bodily functions.  For chimps it doesn’t make a difference if you let out a thunderous fart when you are being groomed by the most desirable male.  It’s also ok if you have poop stuck to your butt, as long as you are swollen and sexually receptive you are still hot stuff.

But then, I remember that life in particular for female chimps is not actually much fun.  I witnessed the unpleasantness that females chimps endure on a couple of occasions this trip.  In the first instance I was again following Zella who was traveling with her mom Trezia, and two adult males, Sheldon and Wilkie.  Trezia and Zella had an agenda for the day; they were only interested in relaxing and participating in marathon grooming sessions with just the two of them.  Additionally they were interested in slowly moving north through the upper ridges.  Sheldon also had an agenda and his agenda included returning south to Kahama Valley and taking ‘his’ female, Trezia, with him.  He was also somewhat interested in sharing some grooming time with Trezia.  Given their differing agendas Sheldon was actually remarkably patient.  He allowed Trezia and Zella to groom for over two hours, only occasionally inserting himself into the mix and demanding a few minutes of grooming.  Trezia obliged each time, but only for a couple of minutes before returning to Zella.  After about two hours, Sheldon began to lose patience and started making ‘rude’ gestures to Trezia, indicating that it was time to go.  He would slap the ground and give a body shake while looking at Trezia.  In chimp speak this means, come here, it’s time to go.  Trezia would ignore these signs as long as she could, all the while Sheldon would get increasingly agitated.  When it became clear Sheldon was about to blow up and give a full blown display, Trezia would quickly run to his side, pant grunt and submit her behind for his inspection, all as a show of submission.  She would allow Sheldon to groom her for a minute or two but inevitably Zella would follow shortly and Trezia would quickly return to grooming Zella.  This pattern repeated itself a good five times.  On the final occasion Sheldon had had enough and resorted to some heavy aggression, slapping Trezia several times and causing her to cower in fear, screaming and fear grimacing.  This was enough to break up the grooming party and Trezia and Zella finally submitted to heading south to the Kahama waterfall.

A few days later I was following Samwise.  She started the day in a fairly large group including her mother, Sandy, alpha male Ferdinand and several other adult males.  Sandy had been missing from the group for quite some time and Ferdinand was keeping close tabs on her now that she had returned.  Early on in the follow the large group split in two but Ferdinand made certain he stayed with Sandy.  When Sandy tried to groom Samwise or her younger son, Siri, Ferdinand would start to shake branches and get agitated in ways similar to Sheldon.  Sandy would quickly return to Ferdinand, she didn’t seem to be willing to taunt him as Trezia had.  You would think it would be easy to slink away from the group and make your escape in a forest as dense as Gombe.  And indeed Sandy attempted to do this a couple of times throughout the day.  However, Ferdinand was keeping an eagle eye on Sandy, even to the detriment of his feeding opportunities.  The other members of the party would be busy eating while Ferdinand would be busy watching Sandy.  At one point Sandy managed to disappear for a few minutes.  When Ferdinand realized Sandy was not on the trail ahead he went into a tizzy.  He stormed down the path with his hair erect giving a classic display before returning to sit at the junction where he had last seen Sandy.  He sat there for a couple of minutes continuing his agitated mini displays until Sandy returned, perhaps knowing it was in her best interest not to piss off the boss and risk bodily harm.

Both Sandy and Trezia are older females, a variety that male chimps find irresistible.  Neither were swollen and therefore not sexually receptive at the time but both are about due to get pregnant again.  Their respective youngest children, Siri and Zinda, are over 5 years old, the average interbirth interval in chimps.  Together, this means that when they are swollen there will be some serious competition to impregnate these females, if they aren’t already, and keeping close tabs on them in the interim may give an advantage to those males who put in the time.  The females theoretically benefit from this arrangement by getting access to the best genes and by foraging within a community defended by males and can sometimes have ‘some’ (key word, some) control over who gets to father their offspring.

Thus, I just need to remind myself sometimes that if I were a chimp I wouldn’t be able to slink off when I wanted to or groom whom I wanted to without fear of extreme bodily harm from males that are a good bit bigger and stronger than me.

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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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