Photograph by Anup Shah
Four-year-old Flirt, daughter of Gombe matriarch Fifi, enjoys her position as the group's golden child.
Gombe's New Generation
By Allan Fallow
In 1961, pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall began the research and observation of chimpanzee behavior within Tanzania's Gombe National Park that would eventually personalize and popularize an entire generation of chimps for the readers of National Geographic magazine. Although only one of the animals she studied as an infant back then survives todayFifi, still going strong at the age of 44Goodall's students and successors are enthusiastically monitoring a brand-new generation of chimps born around the turn of the 21st century. The following update recaps how these youngest chimps have fared over the past six months.
What parents wouldn't want their children to be raised amid a large and active support group? That's the advantage enjoyed by the half dozen chimpanzees who make up the youngest generation of primates in Tanzania's Gombe National Park, where some 30 adult members of the Kasakela community of chimps are keeping a protective eye on the youngsters.
"Despite the problems facing Gombe wildlife and its habitat," field researcher Elizabeth Greengrass reported from the park on March 4, "we have many reasons to be optimistic." These include the recent deployment of park rangers to deter poaching and encroachment, the isolation of sources of respiratory disease among the chimps, and the launch of some well-funded community development projects aimed at relieving human pressures on the wildlife park.
Throughout February and the first half of March, Greengrass (pursuing a Ph.D. in mother-infant relationships among chimps), Juma Mazogo, and Baliwa Issa (both men are collecting data on the topic) spent countless hours in the park, minutely observing the health and welfare of the youngest chimps. All three researchers paid special attention to the evolving social dynamics as the Kasakela chimps adapted to the newcomers in their midst. A synopsis of their most recent observations from the field appears below.
Golden and Glitta
These four-year-old female twins are robust for a pair of reasons: Their mother, Gremlin, is a competent role model and provider, while their older sister, Gaia, has emerged as a resourceful caregiver in her own right.
Although it's true that female chimps take a much more active role in protecting their infant siblings than do males, Gaia seems unusually adept at the role. While Gaia tends to the needs of Glitta, Gremlin focuses her attention on Golden. According to Dr. Shadrack Kamenya, co-director of the Gombe Stream Research Centre, "Gremlin and Gaia appear to have reached an unspoken understanding about this division of labor."
Greengrass, Mazogo, and Issa have a theory to explain Gremlin's bias toward Golden. Whenever the chimp twins ride on their mother's back, they point out, Golden grabs the forward position and Glitta is relegated to the rear. If Glitta happens to be riding up front when Golden climbs aboard, she simply clambers over Glitta to reach her prime position up front, pushing her sister to the back. When Gremlin began to encourage the twins' independence through the simple expedient of sitting downindicating that the infants were to continue traveling on their ownGlitta invariably became the first to drop off and walk solo.
That's why, the field team says, Glitta is now far more independent than Golden. Mostly in the company of Gaia, Glitta ranges farther and spends more time away from her mother. She suckles Gremlin less than her sister does, and cries out for her less frequently. Oftentimes Gremlin will wander off with Golden riding on her back, seemingly oblivious to the plight or whereabouts of Glitta. She may possess a tacit awareness that Glitta has remained in Gaia's protective custody.
Greengrass and her two colleagues have also witnessed clear demonstrations of Gaia's prejudice toward Glitta. One afternoon when Gaia was feeding on a vine, they report, Golden approached and began to peer, or gaze fixedlya chimp behavior that is fraught with significance, as it signaled (in this case) her intention to beg the vine away from its owner. Gaia ignored Golden's display of interest until Glitta approached and began a peering routine of her ownwhereupon Gaia promptly handed the prized vine to Glitta.
Such preferential treatment has not diminished Golden's ability to learn from her older sister. Greengrass recalls an instance last fall in which Gremlin's family was crossing Kakombe Stream when Gaia became mesmerized by the water; she sat down on the bank and gazed into the stream, turning over pebbles and scooping up the flow in one hand. Sitting intently nearby was Golden, who watched for a time before mimicking Gaia's exact motions.
Playing in Kakombe Stream, the field team observes, has since become something of a Gremlin family tradition: Every time they cross the creek, Golden finds time to sit on a rock with her hand immersed in the water, overturning stones on the streambed.
Despite Golden's tendency to whimper, cry, or stage a full-blown tantrum whenever Gremlin moves away from her for any substantial distance or time, the field team notes, "Golden is less serious and a clown. She's more inventive in her play with others or by herself. Humans might call her a tomboy."
Flirt and Furaha
Fifi's prolific pace of procreationshe's currently raising her ninth infant, a five-month-old female named Furaha (Swahili for "joy" or "happiness")has pushed her four-year-old daughter, Flirt, into early independence. Now completely weaned, Flirt has established herself as an autonomous juvenile within the Kasakela community. Unlike Golden and Glitta, who are just a few days younger, Flirt no longer whimpers for her mother; she is also noticeably larger than the twins.
Flirt's younger sister, Furaha, is thriving. "Alert and all eyes to the world around her," report Greengrass, Mazogo, and Issa, "she has grown big, strong, and healthy in just the past few months." Although Furaha spends most of her time clinging to her mother's body, she always acts eager to play with her mother and sister. Recently Flirt has taken to helping Fifi groom Furaha.
When Furaha was first born, say the researchers, it took her mother a few days to rejoin the group and introduce her baby to community members. As Fifi lay on the ground with her new offspring, various chimpsparticularly femaleswould approach to stare. When the onlookers were females such as Fifi's older daughter Fanni, Fifi was visibly relaxed. With more peripheral females, however, Fifi reacted protectively: She used her arm to shield Furaha from their gaze, or assumed a posture of avoidance.
Fanni and Fundi
The relationship between Fanni and her three-year-old son, Fundi, has become a textbook case of separation anxietyon the part of the mother, that is. Fanni has turned out to be a highly protective parent. Unlike the typical chimpanzee adult who might move off through the forest independently, leaving the infant to catch up on his or her own, Fanni rarely travels anywhere without first approaching Fundi and making sure he is attached to her belly or back.
This enforced familiarity has prompted displays of frustration on Fundi's part. He often "bails out" shortly after Fanni starts climbing a mbula tree, forcing mother to return to forest floor in pursuit of son.
That contrary behavior matches the team's personality profile of Fundi as a precocious and highly demanding infant. "One day in January I spotted Fanni feeding on a vine," recalls Greengrass. "Fundi approached his mother and grabbed the vine from her hand. Fanni bit him in admonishment, then immediately hugged him close again. It appeared she was torn between reprimanding Fundi and reassuring him."
Other primates are not unfamiliar with the sentiment.