Teddy’s death and the aftermath

Late on January 20, 2011, Teddy apparently fell to an accidental death. She was a 19-month-old who was last seen alive by researchers about 5 p.m., feeding in a large Ficus natalensis with a big group, apparently completely healthy.  Evidence of her fate came from heavy bruising on her face when Tongo was carrying her next day shortly after dawn. Teddy seemed to have landed face down.

For the next two days Teddy’s mother, Tongo, kept her daughter’s body close, repeatedly gazing at it, grooming it, or waving flies away. Sitting by the corpse or slinging it on her back was little problem, but climbing with a 12-pound lifeless body was hard. Tongo kept her hands free by clenching her infant’s wrist between her head and shoulder while the body dangled down her back. Sometimes she pulled herself up by her arms while nestling the corpse on her thighs. On occasion, seemingly exhausted, Tongo ventured a few yards from Teddy. Someone else in the family then took over. At six years old and still much smaller than an adult, her daughter Tsunami did not have the strength to carry her sister’s body but she dragged it towards her mother, sat with it and groomed it until her mother was ready to carry it once more.

By the third morning the corpse was starting to disintegrate. Tongo left it in her sleeping-nest when she climbed out for her morning meal. Tsunami came to investigate but her climb disturbed the body and it slipped out of the nest and landed on a branch-fork below. Hours later members of our team climbed up and retrieved it. Tongo watched but did not interfere. She screamed and went on her way.

Life is hard in the forest – so hard, indeed, that the capacities of empathy and cooperation that captive experiments show chimpanzees to be capable of must sometimes fall victim to baser urges. On the first morning of Tongo’s loss she was in a group with ten adult males. Her adolescent son Tuber approached and touched the dead Teddy, but none of the adults showed any interest in the corpse, nor any concern for Tongo’s loss. None, for example, approached to groom her, or paid any other kind of friendly attention.

Until Teddy died, Tongo would have been unlikely to mate for another year or more. But with her nursing infant gone she could be expected to come into estrus within days. Perhaps that is why just a few hours after Teddy died, adult male Makoku chased Tongo till she screamed, and why he inspected her genitals a few hours later. She suffered five attacks that first day, from four different males. The screams she gave while clutching her dead baby or running back to collect the corpse were typical of females who are slapped about by males. They seemed to come from fear and resentment, not mourning. During the next few weeks Tongo was accompanied by males most days, and was attacked on average once a day. Every male attacked her except one, her adult son Lanjo.  Then the sexual free-for-all began, less than four weeks after Teddy’s death. Alpha male Kakama had been the most frequent aggressor to Tongo. True to form, once she became sexually ready he had the most copulations. In seven days Tongo mated with every adult male (except Lanjo again) until, after at least 57 copulations, she slipped away from researchers and other chimpanzees to be alone with Bud, one of the younger adult males, and thereby gained a respite from the mayhem.

In captivity chimpanzees will spontaneously give an object to someone reaching for it, and among those that like each other, they can urge each other to pull a rope to reach a food reward that neither could get alone.  So we might reasonably have expected that in the wild, feelings of kindness and generosity might have impelled some in Tongo’s community to help her when she was being picked on. But whereas young Tsunami stepped in to drag her sister’s corpse, no others came to Tongo’s aid. Mutual interests in self-protection provide the most frequent context for support among females, and even then their help is limited. They might cooperate in battling against young immigrant females trying to settle for a lifetime in the same disputed area of forest, but since all females are lower-ranking than any male, they are wary of fighting against males. No female chose to rally behind Tongo when she was victimized by male bullying.

Teddy’s death was sad for Tongo and her family, but at least it had one valuable scientific outcome. The corpse allowed us to describe the intestines of a known-age healthy infant chimpanzee from the wild – the first time anyone has done so.

Richard Wrangham and Emily Otali

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