Agnieszka Wójcińska talks to Magdalena Braum, who works as a primatologist and veterinarian in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.
Agnieszka Wójcińska: How often do chimpanzees, patriarchal by nature, decide to pass power to the females?
Magdalena Braum: Coalitions of females – physically weaker than males – ruling the troop is not something unheard of at all, even though it’s more common in captivity, where males are often more psychologically bruised than females. However, in certain circumstances females can also skilfully control males in the wild. For example, in Gombe (where I work) and in Mahale (the other national park in Tanzania), we observed females that we call “mothers of kings”, who used political scheming to help their sons become alpha males. This way, they gained all the privileges with no stress or the risks that come with leadership. Only their son – the alpha – could stand up to them, but it happened exceptionally rarely.
Why wasn’t Szymon able to outweigh the influence of Mandy and Hannah?
He never had a chance to develop, neither physically (hormonally) nor mentally. A lot of males in his situation would just die. Szymon lived, but he became a ‘genderless’ chimpanzee, so to speak. When Mandy and Hannah joined the group, there were simply no males to contend with.
Such situations, although much more frequent in captivity, also happen in natural habitats. In Gombe, we had this male chimpanzee named Pax. He had a difficult childhood with a pathological mother and big sister, who ganged up on other females’ babies and murdered them. After Pax was born, the murders came to an end, which is why Jane Goodall chose this name for him. It came at a price, though. Baby Pax was molested and almost killed several times. His testicles shrank, and when Pax reached adulthood, he was very sweet and agreeable, but also introverted and alienated from his group, just like Szymon.
You described males living in captivity as psychologically bruised. How does this happen?
On average, there are as many males born in the wild as females, but their lifestyle is much more dangerous. Even as babies, the boys are already more active; they enjoy getting physical in quarrels that become fights as they grow a bit older. Adult males also hunt, go on patrols, take part in wars and protect their territory, while females look after the babies and make sure to keep the young and themselves as far from danger as possible. So, statistically, males live considerably shorter lives than females.
In captivity, nobody wants to keep males. There are too many of them because there is no natural selection at work. Males are troublesome – they fight for domination and for access to females, they are stronger and often aggressive. Sometimes, males are treated worse than females. They are taken away from their mothers at a younger age, and are kept in poorer conditions. But just like in the human world, although the males might be physically stronger, they also are less resilient emotionally.
You mentioned political games. What are they for chimpanzees, and why do they matter?
It’s a challenging task to describe it accurately in just a few words, but I’ll try. All the fundamental mechanics and methods of human politics stem from chimpanzee politics. Coalitions, political games, manipulating other members of the group or the situation itself in order to gain more power, harassment, and empty promises – our closest relatives already discovered all of these tricks before we did. Chimpanzee politics might be ruthless, but its rules are rather plain and transparent. Chimpanzees are honest. Whether they do good or bad, they do so openly. I am yet to see a chimpanzee lie. Us humans, however, inherited their methods and ‘improved’ them by adding more dishonesty to the mix. I prefer chimpanzee politics. At least it is clear how it works.
We encourage you to also read our article about the chimpanzee matriarchy in Warsaw Zoo.
Translated by Aga Zano
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