Meet the Gents
Though my study covers a broad geographic area, encompassing the home ranges of numerous chimpanzee communities, we have focused substantial attention on one community in particular. This community serves as a focal point for ecological data collection and, when possible, behavioral observations. After months of tracking these chimpanzees in an effort to collect fecal samples, we’ve had the opportunity to repeatedly observe some of the individuals in this community. In such instances, it has been helpful to give them names rather than to refer to them as “the one with the scar on his back,” “the one with the freckled face,” etc. With that in mind, I introduce you to a few of the males we’ve met.
His name means “old man,” which seems fitting given his elderly appearance and behavior. He’s a bit rough around the edges in the looks department…yellowed teeth, scraggly hair, and a weathered face. He also has what we refer to as shoulder pads, meaning the hair on his shoulders sticks up in a disheveled-looking way. In addition, he is easily distinguished from the other males by his pale, freckly face.
Nonetheless, he has his charms and seems popular among the other chimpanzees in his community. Just check out the trust he has in fellow male Caesar as he grooms a…shall we say…sensitive area. (See photo below.) Males groom to cement social bonds, and such a delicate task surely requires great trust among friends or kin. Indeed, male relationships are very important among chimpanzees. Because they remain in their birth community through adulthood, males have long-lasting relationships with other males who are sometimes kin members. They often form coalitions with other males, which may thereby serve to aid a male’s status in the social hierarchy.
In stark contrast to Mzee’s eccentric appearance, Caesar is a very handsome chimpanzee with an extraordinarily hairy face. This characteristic always reminds us of the character from Planet of the Apes, hence the name. He was one of the first chimpanzees we saw from this community, and his appearance left a strong impression. He appears to be of prime age, and we suspect he is very high-ranking. Only with more observations can we begin to tease apart the complexities of the social hierarchy with any certainty, however.
So named for his distinctive and bushy “porkchop” sideburns. The hair on his shoulders sticks up just like Mzee’s, leading me to wonder whether Mzee in his younger days bore a strong resemblance to the present-day Porkchop. Perhaps they are closely related.
Caesar’s ally, and a charismatic male in his own right. He seems to be a nice fellow, though his typical relaxed facial expression portrays more of a frown than a kind smile. He also appears to be a prime male in his peak healthy years.
Clayton is a young adult male who seems to be attempting to work his way up the hierarchy. We have observed him at times interacting with the other males, while at times keeping his distance from the confident swagger of the older fellows.
This young male remains somewhat of a mystery to us. We have only a couple of good observations of him. From this, we’ve gathered that he is roughly in his late teens. On several occasions when the other adult males were present, Newton has been absent (or at least not visible to us). We hope to get to know him better in the coming days.
We are only just getting to know these males, so there is still much to learn. How are male relationships affected by this degraded habitat? For example, in larger forests where chimpanzee communities neighbor each other, males often patrol their boundaries to look for outsider males. Do these males engage in patrols, and if so, how? Unanswerable questions also come to mind. For example, what must an old male like Mzee think of all of the changes in his habitat since he was a youngster? We can only speculate and enjoy the opportunities we get for a sneak peek into the life of a male chimpanzee here.
Author’s note: This post was originally published at Scientific American in 2013.
In more recent years, the Bulindi Chimpanzee and Community Project has been monitoring this chimpanzee community as part of their research and conservation efforts in the region. Learn more about their work at https://bulindichimpanzees.weebly.com.