Monday, December 21, 2009

Those Fongoli chimps are at it again...

I LOVE the Fongoli chimps. Now, granted, I am a bit biased, because Jill Pruetz was my master's advisor, so between her and other grad students, I have heard so much about the chimps that I feel almost like I know them. But nonetheless, individually, there's quite a few fascinating characters that are full of charm and personality, and as a group, they always seem to be stretching the limits about what we know about chimpanzees, and what we might be able to infer about our ancestors.

(Note: the picture above is by Frans Lanting and is published in National Geographic's Almost Human. I think they male pictured might be K.L., but I'm not sure).

So first, Jill and Paco Bertolani have just published an article in Paleoanthropology about behavioral responses to a savanna environment. While savanna environments present a number of stressors, the chimps utilize a number of behavioral adaptations to cope. During the dry season, they use caves to shelter themselves from the sun. During the early part of the rainy season, they take advantage of naturally forming pools to soak in. Furthermore, when the moon is full, they take advantage of that light to travel and forage (who would have thought that chimps would be night owls?). Furthermore, unlike the typical fission-fusion social organization, the Fongoli chimps travel in one large party over their huge home range.

I highly suggest checking out Jill's description of nighttime activities as well.

Furthermore, Jill and Tom LaDuke have also recently published a paper on chimpanzee understanding of fire, which is online in the American Journal of Primatology, and will be published in print in 2010. Due to fires set for agricultural purposes, parts of the chimps' home range experiences burning on a seasonal basis. The chimps are able to predict the direction and movement of fires, and rather than expressing fear or stress, calmly adjust their ranging patterns to avoid it.

Pruetz and LaDuke (2010) explain that human conceptualization of fire involves three cognitive stages:

1) Conceptualization of fire--an understanding of the properties of fire, in order to predict where it will move, which allows for maintaining close proximity to the fire.
2) The ability to control fire--this includes understanding how to contain the fire, provide or deprive fuel, and possibly the ability to extinguish it.
3) The ability to start a fire.

They argue that the Fongoli chimps exhibit mastery of the first stage. Furthermore, it's possibly that they may have cognitive understanding of the second stage. However, Jill notes that she doesn't think that they'll be figuring out how to start fires anytime soon.

You can read more about it here.

Finally, one of Nickel's (pictured above, with her infant Teva) hunting tools will be displayed at the Smithsonian's Hall of Human Origins, which opens in March. You can read more about it here.


  1. This is very, very cool stuff! Thanks for sharing.

  2. The part about their understanding of fire is interesting to ponder on. It's easy for us modern humans to take combustion for granted.