Chimps have gal pals too

By Nicole Rivard

Up until recently, the nature of female chimpanzee social relationships was shrouded in mystery. Much of the research focused on the ostentatious behavior of males—from their cooperation to their aggressive competition. Female social roles were confined to motherhood or sexual attraction to males.

It had been written, in fact, that they weren’t that social at all.

Now humans know better—the subtlety of social behavior in female chimpanzees belies a complex set of strategies that allow them to navigate the costs and benefits of group life. Another secret revealed—female chimps are better than males with tools.

We are seeing firsthand the ability of female chimpanzees to go with the flow at Primarily Primates and connect with their gal pals because it brings it brings them joy.

While it was devastating for Wanda to lose her long-time male chimp companion Beau, a resident of PPI for 22 years, she is fitting in nicely with her new troop of females, which includes Barbara and Shu Shu.

Typically, not all chimpanzees have the same importance within their troop. There is a linear hierarchical structure where each member has a rank. An alpha male leads the community, but there are other males too, and they all are above the females, who they try and dominate. However, with Wanda, Shu Shu and Barbara, camaraderie seems more important than rank.

Perhaps it’s the similarities of their backgrounds—all were exploited by research.

Barbara came to PPI in May of 2005. In her pervious life, she was shuffled between many different research labs. Shu Shu got her name from a veterinarian at the now defunct lab that housed some 300 chimpanzees and nearly 300 monkeys who were subjected to intensive biomedical research in areas including reproduction, blood transfusions, hepatitis B and HIV. Prior to her life at a testing facility, Wanda lived in a brothel, which was located in Philadelphia.

Of course, no friendships are without any arguments, but when any tension arises Barbara keeps the peace and will quickly make sure everyone makes amends.

Shu Shu loves nesting but is best known for adoring and carrying around stuffed animals. Wanda loves to take stuffed animals apart; however, she leaves Shu Shu’s precious belongings alone.

At a recent party in the Primadome celebrating their introduction, the three ladies showed just how social they were—they foraged together in the grass and in a pool filled with berries, unwrapped boxes filled with popcorn and other treats and eventually climbed 25 feet to a cupola where they could rest on a hardwood deck.

There, they basked in the sunlight, looking like they were going over the details of the party -- just as human ladies would after a night out.

Learn more about Shu Shu, Wanda and Barbara on our sponsorship page