Watch and Wonder as a Chimp Does His “Rain Dance”

Two males charge by in the foreground as Monk screams, while Miles, the alpha, builds up steam for his own display.
Two males charge by in the foreground in a typical display as Monk screams and Miles, the alpha, builds up steam for his reply. (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

There’s something comforting—almost nostalgic—about rain; the way it muffles other noises as it taps the street and drums the window. The accompanying odors of sweet grass and decaying leaves plastered to the sidewalk. I’m sure that at my university campus back home there’s also the smell of wet dog—probably due to all the drenched squirrels. I like squirrels. But now, after three months of western Uganda’s rainforest rainy season, I’ve had enough rain. So has the forest.

What were once valleys are now impassable swamps, unless a fallen tree can act as a balance-beam bridge. A wrong step and I’ll have mud up to my knees. Trails and animal paths have become streams; the forest is doing all it can to siphon out the excess water. The rainy season is draining.

This wet period usually ends November 16, plus or minus ten days. But the rains continued well into December. People in the village outside the forest were dreaming of a wet Christmas. I was holding out hope for a dry Chanukah, keen to toss aside my rubber boots, don hiking shoes, and let my rain jacket lie dormant in my backpack for the next few months.

What do the chimpanzees think of this prolonged wet season? They don’t look happy hunched on a branch, arms crossed, their hair drenched, forming spikes as if gelled into a 90s hair-do. Rain often subdues them, at least once heavy droplets break though the canopy.

But before they seek cover under a tree, while branches sway in the wind and I hop to and fro zipping up my rain pants, male chimpanzees do something unusual: they dance.

Thunder makes the air vibrate and water ricochets off leaves as Garrison, an elderly male, stands upright and begins to strut, grasping at branches with his hands and dragging them as he walks. He makes large figure eights around the other chimpanzees and me.

Male chimpanzees are famous for charging displays, in which they pull logs and drum their hands against the towering roots of trees. But these “rain dances” are more methodical. While males usually use charging displays as an intimidating greeting when they encounter group mates that they haven’t seen recently, the rain dance seems to occur at any time and in the company of anyone as long as a storm is brewing.

Are they taking advantage of the thunder and rain—ominous sounds to embellish their own prowess? Are they, like me, frustrated with the rain itself? Or, faced with an awesome display of the power of nature, is it some semblance of spirituality? Are they in their way praying for the end of the rains?

Rollins climbs down from a tree with a mouth- and handful of figs (Photo by Aaron Sandel)
Rollins climbs down from a tree with a mouth- and handful of figs (Photo by Aaron Sandel)

Although daily thunderstorms can be demoralizing when trying to observe chimpanzees, this heavy rainy season has its advantages. October and November provided considerable food, specifically a favorite fig, Ficus mucuso. These figs are not just a staple food for chimpanzees. Among humans, they are thought to harbor the old, natural gods, which used to hold sway in western Uganda before Christianity.

What is now Ngogo research camp—my home for the year—was once a small village. Over the past 70 years, the forest has all but swallowed up evidence of those times. But there is a large mucuso fig, affectionately known by researchers as Mother Mucuso, that used to be the spiritual center of the village. The Ugandan chimp trackers report how villagers would go down to the immense fig to make goat sacrifices and give gifts of sorghum beer. One of them told me that when researchers first came to Ngogo in the 1970s, the spirits were “still active.” As researchers passed Mother Mucuso, the sky would darken and the wildlife rangers would take appropriate steps to appease the spirits.

As long as I stay in the good graces of the forest spirits, I expect the wet and dry seasons will come in good time each year, especially if Garrison keeps dancing.

Read More About Ugandan Chimps by Aaron Sandel



Meet the Author
I am a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Michigan. I write from Ngogo, in the center of Kibale National Park in Uganda, home to 200 chimpanzees, the subjects of my dissertation. A National Geographic Young Explorers grant in 2013 got me through the angst of finalizing a dissertation project. Now, I study angst, or at least the closest thing to it: friendship and the transition to adulthood in male chimpanzees. When I’m not focused on following a chimpanzee, my forest daydreams include opening a vegan burrito restaurant in a rural Ugandan village and making a documentary about an old fig tree.