Chimpanzee Mothering

The bond between a mother chimpanzee and her infant is like the one we as humans share with our mothers. Like chimpanzee infants we rely on our mothers for support, protection, and education. 


Most, if not all, of an infant’s care rests solely with the mother. It is the mother who nurses, grooms, carries, and protects the infant from danger that can occur both in and out of the group. This investment from the mother allows the infant to receive support and care throughout its life along with knowledge and skills that help it to survive. This substantial amount of care lasts through infancy, adolescence, and even into adulthood. Can you think of another species that has this much maternal care? It’s US! Most human children stay with their mothers until they are in their late teens or early twenties, some even stay longer!


Female chimpanzees may leave their natal group or they may stay with their mothers into adulthood. Staying by their mother’s side until they become mature allows them to watch their mother take care of younger siblings and gain knowledge and skills that they will use when they become mothers themselves. Male offspring may leave their mothers at an earlier period in their lives than a female would but males will often return to their mothers for emotional support. For example, males must establish themselves in the group’s hierarchy. This is a stressful time in a chimpanzee’s life and a male may go back to its mother when things don’t go his way. Often times in human culture we call men that continually seek their mother for support “momma’s boys”. 



The bond between mother and infant is often so strong, that when a mother loses an infant she will mourn. Mourning behaviors can include carrying around the body of the infant for several days after it has died, continuously touching the infant to assure herself the infant is dead, and looking to other adult chimpanzees to get their  reassurance on the matter. The mother-infant bond is one of the most important in chimpanzee life. We humans also have strong bonds and mothers will also mourn the loss of their children, or anyone in their family for that matter.


Chimpanzee mothers will begin to teach their young life skills at a very young age. An infant chimpanzee will learn from its mother a wide variety of skills and acquire a large knowledge base. Choosing the right food and how to obtain that food is often a major part of what they learn. A young chimpanzee, once it is weaned, must make decisions on which fruits and plants it will eat.  There are many plants that can make a chimpanzee very ill and they must learn which of these plants to avoid. A mother chimpanzee teaches her offspring which plants they can and cannot eat. Young chimpanzees learn this by observing what their mother eats and then mimicking her actions.



A young chimpanzee will also learn what plants are used for medical purposes by watching what plants its mother eats when she is sick. I bet your mother has taught you many things so that you can survive on your own. How many times have you heard, “Don’t do that it’s dangerous/stay away from it you could get hurt” or “It’s okay to eat this, it’s good for you, but that is bad so you shouldn’t eat it?” Your mother is trying to protect you and give you a knowledge base that will be useful later in life. This is similar to chimpanzee mothers who teach their own children how to survive in the wild when it is time to leave the natal group and go off on their own.


Another skill that a mother teaches her offspring is how to make and use tools. Again, a young chimpanzee will watch its mother and mimic her actions with the tools until it has perfected the skills of making and using tools itself. By watching its mother, the young chimpanzee has just learned a valuable skill that will be useful throughout the rest of its life, because tools are often a way for chimpanzees to acquire food.  


A mother will also teach her offspring how to act in social situations. Watching their mothers interact with other chimpanzees in the group will allow the chimpanzee to gain knowledge on how it should act in the group as well. This is important to know because chimpanzees rely on others in the group for safety and support. If a chimpanzee doesn’t know how to live cohesively in a group then it may lose it support system, which could lead to a decrease in survival.


Just as chimpanzee mothers teach their infants how to act in social situations, so do our human mothers. It isn’t hard to think of times when your mother has scolded you for acting impolite in public, or has asked you to say please or thank you when someone does something for you.  All these things make us incredibly similar to chimpanzees.



As the chimpanzees grow so do the bonds; younger siblings will watch and learn skills from their older siblings just as they do with their mother. The older sibling will become more involved in the care and upbringing of the younger when the mother is occupied. This type of “baby-sitting” not only allows females to learn mothering skills but also  gives them practice so that she can become a better mother herself. Siblings also participate in play, which helps to further cement the bond between siblings and this helps the infants to learn social graces. If the mother dies, it is the older siblings that take care of their younger brothers and sisters. They are able to provide both physical care and emotional support. Later in life, siblings will often come to one another’s defense. Brothers may form alliances when establishing themselves in a new group and by having an alliance they can ensure safety and emotional support.  When a female has an infant it is often her sisters or other females in the group that help her, a behavior that is known as “aunting”. This behavior takes the stress of having to care for an infant by one’s self off of the mother and allows her time to take care of her needs. Grandmothers are also very important in a chimpanzee group.  It has been shown that the presence of a grandmother in a group has a positive effect on the reproduction of the females.


Does this remind you of your family? Our mothers not only get help from their older offspring but from their own siblings and mother as well.  We have aunts and grandmothers that help our mother take care of us when our mother is busy. This intense family support is not only found in humans but it can also be found in Chimpanzees!


The sibling relationship is also similar in both humans and chimpanzees. For many of us our siblings are our go to playmate and friend.  We rely on our siblings, although we sometimes don’t like to admit it, for both emotional and physical support, knowledge, advice, and care. If you have siblings, how many times have you helped your parents with your younger sibling? Or have had your older sibling take care of you? Chimpanzees want the same things from their siblings, adding another similarity to the already growing list of traits we share with them.


Message from CAC'ers


While in Africa we saw a lot of mother/child relationships, and each had varying degrees of parental care. Some chimpanzee mothers would be very protective over their infant and would not let them out of their sight.  Other mothers would be more relaxed and would let their infant wander around and play with other young chimpanzees. In either case, the strong bond between mother and child was quite obvious to us and it was great to see that the mother was there for her infant when they needed her.



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