Status and Presence Chimpanzee Style
Tuesday 3rd November 2009

Last week was a fairly quiet week in social terms within our community. This is most likely down to the weather. It has not been the most pleasant and Chimpanzees, just like humans, tend to hunker down and ride out the more miserable conditions.

However, we have seen in the mornings in the Night House robust displays from all three of our adult males. I thought I might touch upon what displays are, the different styles employed by our different males and the overall purpose of displaying and ultimately the purpose of dominant males in Chimp society.

Displaying is the way male Chimpanzees pronounce their status and presence, power etc to other Chimpanzees within their community. Adult male Chimpanzees dominate other individuals through this method.

During displays, males wish to make themselves as impressive as possible so they “hackle up” which means their fur becomes erect, making them seem almost double in size. They then attempt to create as much noise and spectacle as possible, this includes banging, smashing, swinging, and stomping on objects and, indeed, other individuals. The fascinating thing about Chimpanzee displays is the personalisation of technique, each male develops his own style, based on individual whim and things observed and learned in their formative years.

Lubutu for instance likes to kick off from the back doors of exhibit. Shabani likes to kick off from the back wall, less of a noise but very impressive if you happen to be standing on the rear feeding platform and feel the impact through the wall. Chimbuka liked to attack the slides from the house into the exhibit but rubber flaps across these slides have stopped him there, so now he is more of a run-amok through other Chimpanzees sort of guy. Thankfully none of our males show a great interest in kicking off from the viewing windows. Displays involving another individual Chimpanzee usually involve slapping and stomping. Males very rarely will use their canine teeth to bite females (or males) when displaying, as the whole purpose is to intimidate rather than injure.

So what is the role of adult males within a society? They dominate individuals but cannot be counted on to protect them, so what is the point? Adult males act as a stabilising influence over the politicking of community members. Chimpanzee communities are hotbeds of political manoeuvring. However the one thing that every individual or family within a community fears and respects more than each other is the power and dominance of the adult males. They keep the lid on what is the pressure cooker of Chimpanzee politics. Without them a community would soon fall apart.

Last week I saw another example of the intelligence and comprehension of Chimpanzees and how as keepers, we have to recognise this and make allowances for different individuals. Last week’s weather was fairly dismal. However, our current routine for our Chimps is to allow the group access to one side of the Night House and to move them back and forth from one side to another throughout the day. We would prefer that the Chimps move from one side of the house to the other by going outside into the exhibit first and then back into the other side of the Night House. This means about 10 m of outside travel and while this is fine for the majority of our group, in miserable weather, two of our older girls have a decidedly different opinion on this matter. Both Bessie and Lulu will refuse to leave the house and instead will wait at the internal connecting raceway. They know exactly what we wish them to do but insist on emphasising to us that they do not want to go out in the rain and wish to travel a more civilised route. They never give us any trouble by mucking up and staying in the raceway, they simply want to be treated with the dignity that befits their age.

It’s another example of why working with Chimpanzees is such a rewarding experience.

Animals: