Long Live the Queen

July 25, 2015

Merriam-Webster’s definitions for the word family (\ˈfam-lē) hardly suffice as accurate descriptors for the G’s, Kakombe Valley’s chimpanzees-in-residence and arguably the most dominant matriline in Gombe history.  They are, of course, a group of related individuals, but an important narrative is missing from this (singular) noun.  The history of this colorful clan extends back in time to when Jane Goodall first arrived in the summer of 1960.  When Jane first laid eyes upon her, the oldest known matriarch of the infamous G’s, Melissa, was no older than thirteen, an adolescent female who would go on to mother a future alpha, two sets of twins, and finally, the daughter who sits before me today, Gremlin, the grande dame of Gombe present.

Sitting in a Lusieno tree high above the falls, Gremlin gazes out upon the valley over which she presides with the relaxed yet regal air of a high-ranking noblewoman.  She is surrounded by ladies in waiting, daughters Gaia, Glitter and Golden, and with a pronounced yawn she throws an arm behind her head and reclines in satisfaction.  “A family that is very powerful or successful for a long period of time” [1]. Dynasty (\ˈdī-nə-stē)! Just the term I was looking for*…

Now you will never catch Gremlin in a powdered wig, nor her daughters in corseted gowns, but you will find them lounging together without a care in the world, and in the broader scheme of things, this is a rare sight indeed.  You see, in order to avoid the nasty effects of low genetic diversity (or worse— inbreeding), animal societies have evolved an efficient solution: emigration.  When individuals reach sexual maturity they can disperse from their natal communities and settle elsewhere for a shot at new friends, mates and feeding resources.  Within species, dispersal is often (though not always) sex-biased.  In chimpanzees, males are the philopatric sex, meaning that they remain in their natal communities throughout their lives.  Contrastingly, females typically emigrate before reproducing [2,3], bidding friends and family adieu as they take off into the great beyond.  So how is Gremlin surrounded by three adult daughters, not to mention a gaggle of grandchildren?

Gombe demonstrates an interesting deviation from the typical chimpanzee pattern: approximately 50% of the females in our study community never leave their natal communities [4].  While typically mothers say goodbye to at least one of their beloved little girls, Gremlin takes the anomaly to an extreme in that she has managed to avoid this fate with not one but all of her surviving female offspring.  But when it comes to helicopter parenting, Gremlin doesn’t exactly fit the bill.  She is not an overly attentive mother, and she seems to be unfazed by traditional parenting snafus, like the time she was separated from her juvenile son for over a day (though perhaps this is a trade-off of having oodles and boodles of children).  It therefore seems unlikely that her legion of ladies stuck around via guilt trip or and/or the promise of violin lessons.  A better explanation may be that as a high ranking female, Gremlin holds a superior core area (i.e., the better part of Kakombe valley).  Core areas are sites within the larger community range wherein females concentrate their space use [5].  Maintaining access to a particular core area, and the resources therein, may allow females to reduce feeding competition and maximize feeding efficiency through an intimate knowledge of “the lay of the land”.  Similar to the way that we all seem to understand the subtle nuances of our own refrigerator arrangements, yet stare blankly at those of unfamiliar households.  Given that female chimpanzees are more aggressive inside of their individual core areas than outside [6], we have reason to believe that they actively compete for long-term access to these spaces.  Armed with three close genetic relatives and a platoon of grandchildren, it seems that Gremlin’s dominion over the lush and navigable Kakombe valley is all but sealed.

While we do not fully understand the factors that prompt some females to remain in their natal communities, we can certainly examine the consequences of this behavior.  As Gremlin meanders about the branches of her Lusieno tree, gently grazing daughters and grandchildren in passing from branch to branch, it comes to her attention that an unsuspected visitor has entered her court and Sampson, an unrelated adult male, comes into view.  At nineteen, he has the body mass and social prowess to dominate Gremlin or any one of her daughters, yet he shows signs of apprehension, preferring to feed on some of the more peripheral branches.  Not a minute goes by before Gremlin leads a charge against the intruder, and in heeding her silent call to battle, is promptly supported by Gaia, Golden and Glitter.  They chase Sampson down the tree and away from their morning meal, and he wails in fearful escape of the great and terrible G’s.  Just weeks ago, I watched as a similar event unfolded with Fudge, a strapping young lad who is believed to be the next alpha.  Through the power of female coalition, it appears that Gremlin and her family have not only risen to power within their valley, but are flipping traditional chimpanzee socio-ecology on its head.  Banded together, Gremlin and her daughters seem to grow less and less subordinate with each passing day, a wild defiance of an otherwise male-dominated order. But then again, someoneǂ once said that “women are the real architects of society.”

*And a term I was not looking for, but was happy to find, was “octothorpe,” Merriam-Webster’s online word-of-the-day which means “the word for the symbol #,” or what kids these days call a hashtag. OCTOTHORPElol. I’ll be trying that out…

ǂHarriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and American bad ass.


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dynasty

[2] Nishida, T. (1968) The social group of wild chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains. Primates 9:167–224.

[3] Goodall, J. (1986) The chimpanzees of Gombe. Harvard University Press. Cambridge.

[4] Pusey, A.E., Williams, J.M., Goodall, J. (1997) The influence of dominance rank on the reproductive success of female chimpanzees. Science 277:828–831.

[5] Wrangham, R.W., Smuts, B.B. (1980) Sex differences in the behavioral ecology of chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Journal of Reproduction and Fertility. Suppl. 28: 13–31.

[6] Miller, J. A., et al. (2014) Competing for space: female chimpanzees are more aggressive inside than outside their core areas. Animal behavior 87: 147-152.

[6] Miller, J. A., et al. (2014) Competing for space: female chimpanzees are more aggressive inside than outside their core areas. Animal behavior 87: 147-152.

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