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Chimps in Uganda: Meet the Gents

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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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.

Mzee

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.

Mzee. Photo: Jack Lester.

Mzee. Photo: Jack Lester.

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.

Caesar grooms Mzee. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Caesar grooms Mzee. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Caesar

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.

Caesar. Photo: Jack Lester.

Caesar. Photo: Jack Lester.

Porkchop

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.

Porkchop. Photo: Jack Lester.

Porkchop. Photo: Jack Lester.

Tyson

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.

Tyson. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Tyson. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Clayton

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.

Clayton. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Clayton. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Newton

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.

Newton. Photo: Jack Lester.

Newton. Photo: Jack Lester.

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.

Porkchop, Tyson, and Clayton pant hoot. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Porkchop, Tyson, and Clayton pant hoot. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Previously in this series:

Chimps in Uganda: Two weeks and counting….
Chimps in Uganda: “These are a few of my favorite things”
Chimps in Uganda: Home Sweet Home
Chimps in Uganda: Bustling Kampala and Unwanted Houseguests
Chimps in Uganda: Reading the Clues
Chimps in Uganda: Lessons from Washoe
Chimps in Uganda: Travels In and Out of the Forest
Chimps in Uganda: Surprise Encounter
Chimps in Uganda: Rising Conflict
Chimps in Uganda: Conservation Conversation

Maureen McCarthy About the Author: Maureen McCarthy is a PhD Candidate in Integrative and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Southern California. She received her Master’s Degree in Experimental Psychology from Central Washington University, where she studied the gestural communication of chimpanzees who have acquired American Sign Language. She has more than a decade of experience studying captive and free-ranging primates. Maureen is currently in Uganda for a year to study the behavioral ecology and genetics of chimpanzees in fragmented forest habitats. Dr. Craig Stanford advises her research. This is Maureen’s fourth trip to Uganda—she’s been there several times before to volunteer as a research assistant and to collect pilot data for her dissertation. When she’s not busy collecting chimpanzee poop or getting malaria, Maureen enjoys birding, hiking, and photography. This research would not be possible without the generous support of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, the USC Jane Goodall Center, Primate Conservation, Inc., and the American Society of Primatologists. Follow on Twitter @mccarthymaureen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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