Frodo: A Glimpse Into the Retirement of an Demonic Alpha Male

Lisa O’Bryan is in Gombe National Park in Tanzania, where Jane Goodall began the first studies of chimps in the wild. Lisa is in the forests trying to better understand the calls chimps make, to help discover just where the line is (or isn’t) between sounds and speech.

UPDATE: 4/15/2013

In a transcript released by the BBC in 2005, host Dilly Barlow interviewed Jane Goodall about her unique relationship with the fearsome chimpanzee, Frodo.

“Frodo singled me out, none of us know why, but from very early on he singled me out and he didn’t just push me over he would come back and then stamp on me again, maybe three times in a row, and sometimes drag me. He’s dragged other people, he’s stamped on other people but he has a special expression on his face for me, we’ve all noticed it, and we don’t know why,” said Jane.

Frodo also made news several years prior when he kidnapped and killed an infant living close by, shocking the world and earning him the title “the Demonic Ape”.

[Begin original post.]

Frodo in his younger years
Frodo in his younger years (Photo by Dr. Michael Wilson)

In 1997 Frodo’s reign of terror began as he usurped his older brother Freud’s position as alpha male of the chimps of Gombe.

Born into the distinguished F-family, source of 4 alpha males to date, Frodo was blessed with a hefty size and powerful demeanor. Weighing in as one of the largest males at Gombe, this physical advantage was not lost on him. During dominance displays he terrorized not only other chimps but also nearby humans, often forcing them to jump behind trees to avoid being knocked over. His boldness wasn’t restricted to the social realm. Frodo was notorious for his drive and ability to hunt, with a particular taste for red colobus monkeys. Thus, from 1997 to 2002, no primate at Gombe was immune to Frodo’s wrath.

However, since I did not first arrive at Gombe until 2009, my impression of this legendary chimp is entirely different. At the ripe old age of 37, over a decade since illness knocked him from the alpha position, it appears that time has taken its toll. The entire lower half of his back has gone grey and he has lost much of his bulk. Inhabiting the flatter areas of forest bordering the beach, he haunts camp almost daily when crossing between valleys. Once such a powerful political figure, he now appears largely uninterested in social interaction and spends nearly all of his time searching for food. Occasionally, when he does drop in on a party of chimps, he only stays long enough to soak up some grooming and grab opportunities to mate before wandering off on his own.

Frodo sits alone on a log after moving off from the rest of the group (Photo by Lisa O'Bryan)
2009: Frodo sits alone on a log after moving off from the rest of the group (Photo by Lisa O’Bryan)
Always the loner, Frodo contemplates his next move (Photo by Lisa O'Bryan)
2012: Always the loner, Frodo contemplates his next move (Photo by Lisa O’Bryan)


While he is indeed one of the more mellow chimps I spend time with, sparks of his former self are still visible. Just yesterday he stared down my field assistant while passing menacingly close on the trail, and we recently observed three solo hunting attempts over the course of 24 hours (though regrettably none were successful).  Likewise, his lingering influence on other chimps is undeniable. A slow saunter with his hair standing on end can still send most chimps scurrying out of his way uttering pant-grunts of subordination. Be it the size of his still-impressive frame or frightful memories of the past, it appears Frodo will quietly live out the rest of his years in infamy.

Frodo enjoys some grooming by an enthusiastic Gimli (Photo by David O’Bryan)


NEXT: Read All Gombe 2013 Blog Posts




Meet the Author
Lisa O’Bryan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation research focuses on the function of chimpanzee food-associated calling behavior. She is currently conducting fieldwork at Gombe National Park through the end of May 2013.