“You’re It!”: Alpha Male Seeks Out Hidden Chimp

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.

Due to low food availability, the chimps have been playing an extended game of hide-and … hide, spreading out across the park in order to avoid intense feeding competition. However, after weeks of solitude, it appears that some chimps are beginning to seek.

I was recently following Ferdinand, the alpha male of the Kasekela chimpanzee community at Gombe National Park. He was high in Kakombe Valley frantically gathering sparsely distributed fruits during a tour of the upper slopes. Suddenly, the vocalization of a nearby chimpanzee shattered the silence, an unexpected sound since the chimps have been virtually mute in their attempts to avoid one another.

Immediately, Ferdinand abandoned his foraging efforts and took off in the direction of the outburst. Intrigued, I watched him navigate through a succession of trails, stopping to listen at various junctions before deciding which to choose. Finally coming to a dense field of vines, he climbed on top of a fallen tree and waited.

Ferdinand takes it easy while enjoying grooming by Eliza (Photo by Lisa O'Bryan)
Ferdinand takes it easy while enjoying grooming by Eliza (Photo by Lisa O’Bryan)
Ferdinand gets into position for optimal grooming by Eliza. (Photo by Lisa O’Bryan)

Soon, a rustling began underneath the dense mat of vegetation. As the undulations neared the awaiting alpha male, a timid pant-grunt of submission rang out from below the sea of vines. Waiting in anticipation, I braced for one of Ferdinand’s intimidating dominance displays. Instead, he began scratching himself loudly, a behavior that often precedes bouts of grooming.

After some hesitation, the hidden chimp cautiously emerged from the vines, revealing herself as the adult female Eliza. Without any further ado, the two peacefully groomed for the next hour, with Ferdinand drinking in the much-needed attention. Then, as quietly as they came together, the pair parted ways, returning once again to their solitary scavenging.

When food is abundant, chimps can spend large amounts of time in one another’s company, improving social bonds and pursuing mating opportunities. Since many fruits in the park are showing signs of impending maturation, it appears that only a few more weeks remain of this current state of isolation. Then, this lonely “game” will end as chimps emerge from hiding and celebrate with a good meal.

NEXT: Read All Gombe 2013 Blog Posts


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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.