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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lots and Lots of Chimpanzees

February 21, 2010

I have been at Kibale Forest for almost four months now. Time is
flying. During January and February, I've been spending 4-5 days/week
(13+ hours/day) in the forest with the chimpanzees (hence my lack of
blog posts). In many ways – keeping up with this schedule feels
incredibly challenging. However, there are plenty of positives that
come from this time spent in the forest. Namely, data collection is
coming along smoothly. Data aside though, my favorite part about these
long hours is that I am becoming much more familiar with the
chimpanzees – their individual personalities and the relationships
that they have with each other. I can finally ID most of the community
members, which is a great feeling. Some days I'll unexpectedly see one
of the chimps on my walk home from the forest - usually, I'll see one
heading in the direction of a group that I just left. It's such a neat
(and bizarre) feeling to happen upon a chimpanzee that I know and
recognize – almost like seeing an old friend.

I've come to really enjoy spending time with the family units. Because
chimpanzees are extremely promiscuous, paternity is never certain (to
the chimpanzees as least) and thus males invest little in their young.
As a result, the mothers tend to travel with their kids, and they move
in and out of parties with males and other family units. Following a
mom who has several kids can be really fun, as the kids tend to play a
lot – and some of the younger chimps are really spunky. There's one
juvenile male, Tacugama, who often displays at me by swatting branches
or small trees in my direction; he also picks fights with his little
sister a lot. He's kind of a punk, but I really appreciate his
dramatic personality – he's fun to watch. Yesterday, I was following
Tacugama's family down a steep hill. His older sister laid on the
ground and rolled all the way down the hill. Tacugama followed suit.
They sprang up at the bottom of the hill and started running after
each other – playing and exchanging friendly slaps. Strangely enough –
my first thought was, "I remember rolling down hills with my sisters
when I was a kid." I love witnessing moments like this – moments in
which the chimpanzees seem so similar to humans and so charismatic.

Another great moment that sticks out in my mind is the first time I
met Umbrella, an adult female. Umbrella has a young (very stubborn)
6-year old son and a brand new baby. Baby chimps are too uncoordinated
to walk; thus, an infant will generally hang off of his/her mom's
belly while the mom travels. Eventually, an infant will start riding
"jockey-style" on the mom's back when moving from one location to
another. The mother will usually wean juveniles at age four – and
force the kids to start walking independently (once they are
coordinated enough to do so). Anyway – the first time I met Umbrella,
she had a tiny one-month old baby wrapped around her belly, and she
was trying to summon her 6-year old son to join her so that they could
move together to a feeding tree. Her son however, was throwing a fit.
He apparently didn't want to leave the large group they were in – so
he was running around whimpering and screaming. Finally, Umbrella bent
down, ushered her 6-year old onto to back, and walked off – with a
baby on her belly and a juvenile on her back. Umbrella won a great
deal of respect from me that day. She's proven to be a very patient
mother many times since then as well.

There has been a good deal of drama in the forest during these past
two months. Soon after I arrived, the old alpha male chimpanzee (of
ten years!) was overthrown by a new alpha. Amazingly - it was a fairly
peaceful change of power, and the old alpha male has been pant
grunting to and grooming the new alpha (clear signs of subordinance).
With all of the social excitement (and some newly emerged fruiting
trees) – the chimpanzee parties have been HUGE lately. When I first
arrived, I was following very small groups of 1-4 individuals at a
time. These past two months though, the party sizes have more
typically been 12+ individuals…sometimes with as many as 30
chimpanzees traveling together.

The new alpha has led the chimp community on several patrolling
missions to go and survey the edges of their home range. It's pretty
cool to watch these – because the males (and some of the more daring
females) literally walk in single-file lines through the forest, all
the while keeping very, very quiet in an effort to hear if other
'stranger' chimpanzee communities are invading their territory (this
is shown in one of the photo above where a large group of chimps are
all facing the same direction listening for chimpanzees from other
communities). Last week, our community happened upon another
community and chaos broke out....absolute chaos. Unfortunately we were
in a horrible swamp with tall plants, ants, and elephant footprints
(which you'll flood your boots if you step in) everywhere - so it was
very difficult to see what was going on. We could hear LOTS of
screaming though. Some of the field assistants who were closer to the
action though saw our males beat up a female from the other group.
Apparently she was bleeding badly - and our males also dragged her
baby away from her and stomped on the baby. Chimpanzees can be so
horrible to each other! Amazingly - it seems like both the female and
her baby survived the attack. However - this week, one of our
community females (Umbrella – the female I wrote about earlier) turned
up without her new two-month old baby, Umami. We (the students and
FA's) think that the 'stranger' males probably killed her baby. I
can't believe TWO babies have died since I've been here (4 months!).
Umbrella will likely start cycling again though - so there should be a
lot more sexual activity in the coming weeks which will be interesting
to see. I took a photo of Umbrella and her young baby before he died
– which is shown below. Being so young, Umami would typically cling
tightly to his mother. Thus, I was happy to be able to snap this photo
at a moment when Umami was stretching and exposing his bare, hairless

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