Understanding Human Evolution: Fongoli Chimpanzees

March 10, 2009

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Jill Pruetz from National Geographic. In addition to being a professor of biological anthropology at Iowa State University, she is currently conducting studies for National Geographic on the evolution of the Fongoli chimpanzees of Senegal. Understanding how the Fongoli chimpanzees survive the harsh conditions of Senegal help us to comprehend how our own ancient relatives might have lived. She will be giving a lecture on the subject at HMNS on Tuesday, March 24. This event is part of the Museum’s ongoing celebration of Darwin2009.

My research focuses on a unique chimpanzee community. The Fongoli chimpanzees live in southeastern Senegal where the climate is very hot, dry and open for this species. Temperatures during the 7 month dry season can reach over 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and rainfall is less than 35 inches per year. Chimpanzees here live in a habitat that is almost devoid of forest. Over 95% of their extensive home range (from two to nine times larger than the ranges of chimpanzees studied elsewhere!) consists of grassland or woodland, with tiny patches of forest making up the rest.

Grey day over the savannah
Creative Commons License photo credit: Julien Harneis

Other attempts at habituating savanna chimpanzees to the presence of human observers have not succeeded.  I believe that I was successful at Fongoli, in part, because chimpanzees don’t view most humans as predators.  Although they avoid humans – to this day, except for us – they do not react to them as if they are predators. 

People in Senegal do not eat chimpanzees as they do in many countries of Africa but consider them to be close relatives.  They include chimpanzees in their folktales and myths.  Even so, it took us four times longer (four years!) to habituate the Fongoli chimpanzees as researchers studying chimpanzees in more forested areas.

Creative Commons License photo credit: doug88888

The extreme environment at Fongoli is the reason I chose to work here.  This environment is similar, in many ways, to the mosaic of habitats that we associate with the earliest members of our own lineage – the bipedal apes that lived over 5 million years ago.  Hunting with tools, using caves, living with fire, soaking in water pools, and living in a more cohesive community are all behaviors that are fairly unique to the Fongoli chimpanzee community when compared to studies of this species elsewhere.  Each of these behaviors can be tied into the savanna environment in which they live. 

Understanding the behavior of our closest living relatives in this type of environment can help provide insight into how apes respond to the pressures associated with a mosaic habitat, something we knew little about until our study of the Fongoli chimpanzees.

For more information on Jill Pruetz and her work with chimpanzees check out her blog at http://www.savannachimp.blogspot.com and http://www.savannachimp.com

For more information on her lecture here on Tuesday, March 24, click here. This is just one of the many distinguished lectures available at HMNS.

Authored By Steven Cowan

Steven never dreamed his first job out of college would be in public relations, and on top of that working for one of the top museums in the country. After all, he majored in History at Vassar College. Within three months of graduation, he landed a spot in the PR department and has not looked back since. He is fast becoming a communications fanatic, spending a tremendous amount of his time promoting the museum and all it has to offer.

One response to “Understanding Human Evolution: Fongoli Chimpanzees”

  1. Raptor Lewis says:

    I guess the phrase “history repeats itself” fits doesn’t it. Maybe we get to see Human evolution firsthand. That is amazing. I say to Creationists (some): “In your face!!” And to Charles R. Darwin: “Eat your heart out.”

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