email a friend iconprinter friendly iconCongo Chimps
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On a sticky September morning at the front end of the Congo’s rainy season, Morgan, Sanz, and I leave the Goualougo base camp at dawn with our tracker Bosco Mangoussou and begin marching down one of the well-worn elephant trails carved into the forest. The sun has barely broken through the canopy, but already swarms of stingless Meliponini sweat bees are clinging to any piece of exposed flesh not coated with menthol balm. Our route regularly slaloms around patties of elephant dung and heaps of rotting fruit, whose pungent aromas permeate the humid air. It is the immense variety of those fruits—more than two dozen edible species ranging from pumpkin-size Treculia africana to rubbery, soft ball-size Chrysophyllum lacourtiana—that makes the Goualougo such an attractive habitat for chimps. Our destination this morning is the primary range of the Moto community, one of 14 distinct chimp groups that call the Goualougo Triangle home.

Periodically the sound of a distant pant-hoot pierces the forest. When that happens, Morgan sets the bearings on his compass and we tear off on a sprint through prickly brambles and knobby lianas. Mangoussou, a Babenzélé Pygmy who stands barely five feet tall and has a mouthful of teeth chiseled to sharp points, leads the way, sometimes slowing to clip a path through the understory with a pair of gardening shears. After one five-minute dash, we spot a half dozen chimps lounging in an Entandrophragma tree about 130 feet off the ground.

We watch through binoculars as a puckish subadult female, a new immigrant to the Moto community, horses around with Owen, a juvenile orphan whose mother was recently killed by a leopard. With a small twig clenched between her teeth, the female (Morgan and Sanz later generously named her Dinah, after my wife) chases after Owen and wrestles him onto a nearby limb. Then something remarkable happens that has almost never been observed outside of the Goualougo.

Dinah spies a cloud of sweat bees emerging from a hole near the main trunk of the tree. She leaps to her feet, leaves Owen behind, and breaks off a branch about as thick and long as a human arm. With the blunt end she begins whaling away at the bark. She knows that somewhere inside a hard-to-access crevice is a hive with a small cache of honey.

Dinah's rhythmic thumping echoes loudly off the surrounding trees. She transfers the club to her foot and swings around to the other side of the trunk to get a better angle. Then she rips a small twig off a nearby branch, dips it into the hive, and swirls it around like a knife at the bottom of a peanut butter jar. She pulls it out, sniffs it, realizes there's no honey on it, throws it away, and starts pounding some more. She repeats the process, running through seven different dipping sticks. Finally, after nearly 12 minutes of hammering at the disobliging hive, she plunges her finger into a crack and seems to yank out the slightest bit of honey, which goes straight into her mouth. But just as she is beginning to enjoy the fruits of her labor, Finn, the Moto community's alpha male and resident bully, descends from a nearby branch with his hair standing on end, seemingly outraged that a young upstart is enjoying a sugary delicacy in his presence. He lunges at Dinah, who drops her club and flees to another limb. Morgan and Sanz exchange high fives. "That's one of the best honey-pounding observations anyone has ever had!" Sanz exclaims gleefully.

The fact that honey pounding hasn't been observed at other chimp research sites outside of central Africa suggests that it is not part of the species' innate behavioral repertoire, but rather is a learned skill that has been culturally transmitted. Part of what makes Dinah's behavior so intriguing is that she used two different kinds of tools—a big club and a thin twig—in sequence to accomplish her goal.

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