Hunger Games: One Chimp’s Thrilling Monkey Hunt

Titan looking up into the trees overhead (Photo by David O’Bryan)

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 forest to try to better understand the calls chimps make, to help discover just where the line is (or isn’t) between sounds and speech.

Though the chimps have been searching far and wide for any high quality food that might be available, all they have been turning up with is a mouthful of hard, bright green fruits. Thus it wasn’t surprising when one of the chimps went in pursuit of a more satisfying meal.

My focal target for the day was Titan, one of the adult male chimpanzees at Gombe National Park. After spending the morning crunching on unripe fruit with his group mates, Titan climbed higher on the ridge to try his luck solo. While perched on top of a dense sea of shrubs he suddenly dropped to the ground and wriggled underneath the vegetation. Casually coming to a stop at the base of a large tree he peered upwards through the dense ceiling of leaves.

This action didn’t catch our attention until we spied a troop of red colobus monkeys resting in the highest branches. Clearly his behavior caught their attention as well since they immediately began leaping through the treetops to safety. While the odds were clearly not in his favor, Titan pursued, slinking through the undergrowth below the fleeing troop.

Scrambling on top of a fallen tree to get a better view of the action, we saw the monkeys congregating in a nearby tree nervously scanning their environment. Suddenly, Titan’s huge form broke free of the vegetation below, setting the air a-buzz with flying primates. Titan immediately zeroed in on one of the smaller monkeys, hurtling through the branches and plunging back into the bushes below.

Titan enjoys the fruits of his labor while Fanni scores some scraps (Photo by Lisa O'Bryan)
Titan enjoys the fruits of his labor while Fanni scores some scraps (Photo by Lisa O’Bryan)
Chema waits for scraps of meat to fall from the chimps feeding above her (Photo by Lisa O'Bryan)
Chema waits for scraps of meat to fall from the chimps feeding above her (Photo by Lisa O’Bryan)

Though he emerged a few minutes later empty-handed, he clearly wasn’t ready to give up. While climbing back into the tree he grew more brazen, making a grab for a pair of monkeys as they raced by. While one quickly fled, the other put up a fight, shaking branches and lunging at the provoking chimp before running off. Undeterred, Titan sauntered through the trees after the fleeing troop.

As the action continued into the next valley, we made a break for the trail leading down the steep ravine. Halfway down, chilling screeches broke out from around the stream bed, hastening our travel. As we skidded to a stop at the bottom of the gorge we saw what all the commotion was about. Perched high in a tree, Titan was holding the body of a young monkey. Now in the company of two females attracted by the commotion, Titan remained in the tree for the rest of the evening, savoring the best meal he has had in some time.

As the rainy season fades away, these hunts will likely increase in number, particularly once the chimps start traveling in larger parties. Until then, those bold enough (or hungry enough) to go it alone may be rewarded with a hearty meal to help them weather these lean months.

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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.