Food As a Cultural Aspect of Chimpanzee Life

Like with us humans, a chimpanzeeís diet varies depending on where they live. Think about it; people in India tend to eat spicier food than people who live in North America. Chimpanzees are similar to us because their diet changes based on where they live. Although, a chimpís diet is not  only based on where they  live but also on the culture to which they belong.


For example, Many chimpanzees that live in the Western parts of Africa use rocks  to break open nuts, but chimpanzees in Eastern Africa do not practice such a skill. Young chimpanzees learn to collect food by watching and imitating their mothersí behaviors. Each generation learns from older individuals which leads to a difference in collection techniques between regions.  Like the chimpanzees found in Gombe as well as the Mahale K group, one of the two groups found in Mahale, have been seen fishing for termites with twigs! But, the Tai and Gombe chimpanzees also fish for and eat driver ants, which  the Mahale groups usually avoid.



Another interesting thing about chimpanzee diets is that some populations use different tools or techniques based on the area in which they live in. For example, chimpanzees in Gombe climb a palm tree in order to obtain a food item known as a palm nut. While others found in the Tai forest and Bossou, the Western part of Africa, use a rock as a hammer and another as an anvil to open coula nuts.


Chimpanzees eat meat like many humans, and depending on where they live--Western or Eastern Africa--they will hunt differently. The chimpanzees found in the Tai forest hunt adult Red Colobus monkeys, where as the chimpanzee in Gombe or Mahale will hunt juveniles (the younger monkeys). The chimpanzees in Western Africa will also hunt together and share the meat more often than their cousins in Eastern Africa. In addition, only the Tai forest chimpanzees have been seen to eat the bone marrow (the inside of the bones of their prey) from their kills.


There are many reasons why these differences can be seen; one being the Chimpanzees habitat. In the Ivory Coast, there is a well-developed canopy to the forest, and monkeys may escape chimp predators by climbing high into the trees. In this kind of situation only cooperative hunting would be successful. However, in Gombe and Mahale the forests are not as dense. Not only would habitat be cause for a difference, but also the behavior of the prey would require different hunting tactics. In the dense forests the monkeys can  escape more easily, but in Gombe or Mahale the monkeys take a stand and fight approach and so adults are more aggressive than juveniles.


Another way chimpanzees are similar to us is that they will use certain plants for medicinal purposes! Chimpanzees will eat a long vine which has purple flowers called Aspilia in order to cure worms, parasites, and abdominal pain. Think about it; you have probably used plants for medical reasons. A common one is Aloe Vera, which is used to help soothe burns. What is interesting is that humans living in the same area will often use the same plants to treat anything from stomach problems to parasitic infections! Most of the time chimpanzees will also avoid eating these medical plants as part of their daily diet and  eat them only when they are feeling ill. Like how we would not take Tylenol unless we have a headache. Animals tend to avoid medicinal plants unless they need them as well.


While, there are plants with medical purposes found in different locations; there are a few chimpanzee groups that have access to different kinds of medical remedies outside of their native location. The chimpanzees found in Uganda eat the dirt in order to self-medicate themselves against malaria, an infectious disease passed by mosquitoes. However, the dirt alone is not enough; the chimps also consume the plant Trichilia Rubescens, which contains the malaria medicine, that mixes with the dirt and effectively protects them against malaria. But, this particular plant is only found in Western Africa, so Gombe and Mahale chimpanzees do not use this plant as medicine.



Message from CAC'ers


When we were trekking through the African jungle in Tanzania we noticed that in Mahale there were few chimpanzees in trees, but when we were in Gombe we saw many more chimpanzees up at the top of palm trees. We also tasted some of the same foods that chimpanzees eat. One was an extremely sticky and sour fruit that tasted like a mix between an orange and a lemon! 


Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.