Meet the Animals in RCAA

Well we are all SO excited to be back for our Winter LEAP Series! Welcome to all of our new faces, and welcome back to all of our LEAP regulars! Since we will be spending the next three weeks of class not only getting to know one another, but also playing alongside of our great ape relatives, here is a little introduction to the chimpanzees and western lowland gorillas living in the Regenstein Center for African Apes.

Chimps and gorillas are social, just like humans! How are their social interactions similar or different to yours? 

Great apes, a group within the Primate family that consists of humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos, are generally quite social, but have varying types of social groups depending on the species. Chimpanzees tend to live with multiple males and multiple females in a group and form a dominance hierarchy within that, usually with a male at the top. Western lowland gorillas, on the other hand, tend to live in harems, which contain multiple females and one dominant male, the silverback. If you’re doing the math, that leaves many male gorillas on their own, so those ‘extra’ males not currently in harems tend to form bachelor troops. You can observe all these different types of social groups in our building this month. Can you tell which group is which?

Chimps and gorillas also engage in play, especially when they are young. What kind of play behavior do you see?

Our gorilla family troop (called Kwan’s troop because Kwan is the silverback) currently has three toddlers in it- four year olds Patty and Nayembi and nearly two year old Bella (she’ll turn two in February!). Just like human toddlers, young gorillas learn through play, so you’ll likely observe these furry toddlers wrestling, playing chase, tossing around blankets, or climbing all over their exhibit. As they grow older and larger, the play can start to look more intense to us, as you might observe with the gorilla bachelor troop of juvenile males. Chimps are playful, too, which you can read more about in an upcoming post from an Lincoln Park Zoo scientist, but during LEAP class we often find the chimps observing our actions rather than playing with one another. It’s not every day that they see tiny people playing with colorful instruments, creating art and playing with blocks right next to their exhibit!

I’ve noticed the chimpanzees do some interesting things with their poop…?

You may be surprised to see chimps at Lincoln Park Zoo walking around with feces in their mouth or smearing it on the glass. While we may find this unpleasant (especially since we don’t want our LEAPers to replicate it!) this behavior is actually normal for chimpanzees in the wild. Poop-eating even has a scientific name- coprophagy. This behavior occurs in the wild as a way to obtain extra nutrition in their diet. Since much of a chimp’s diet is very fibrous, not all the nutrients are absorbed the first time down, so to speak. Chimps will extract seeds and other fibers from their poop and eat them again. Coprophagy is a learned behavior. One chimp sees another chimp doing something, and they try out that behavior themselves. Even though food is not scarce at the zoo, some chimps still exhibit this behavior because they learned it from someone else and it’s become simply a habit. We don’t know the exact reason why they enjoy it so much-perhaps they do it just to gross out us humans!

A couple animal observation notes:

  • Turn off your flash. When photographing any animals in the zoo, we ask you to make sure your camera flash is off so you don’t startle the animals or affect their vision.
  • Don’t tap on the glass. In the wild, sound can be a signal to be on alert, as it can mean other animals are approaching. While zoo animals do get used to the different sounds of people and the cityscape, we ask you to let the animals do their animal thing rather than trying to grab their attention by tapping on the glass.
  • Don’t stare. With great apes in particular, they are used to looking into one another’s eyes and then quickly looking away, rather than staring intently. Show respect to their social behaviors by doing the same. 

There is much more to learn about chimpanzees and gorillas- in fact, Lincoln Park Zoo scientists are continuing to research how apes learn by studying them both in the wild and in zoos- but hopefully this will get you started. Feel free to ask us more questions here on the blog or during class!

Written by Becky Lyons