Do chimpanzees hunt?

This question was featured in the winter 2014 edition of Chimp Chatter, our quarterly newsletter.

Dear Patti,

Do chimpanzees hunt?

From, Megan


Dear Megan,

Other than humans, chimpanzees like myself are the only omnivorous apes. We are intelligent animals with complex social relationships, and just like humans, we use these skills to hunt. We can eat many different types of rodents and small mammals, but the most common prey for wild chimps are red colobus monkeys. This is especially difficult as red colobus monkeys move quickly through the trees, but we’re always up for the challenge.

Hunting parties usually consist of adult and adolescent males. But rarely, swollen (or sexually receptive) females participate, and these hunts are most successful – imagine that! Hunting is coordinated, and each chimp has a role: driver, blocker, chaser, or ambusher. Young chimps learn to hunt from older members of the group, so the most experienced males have the trickiest jobs.

Once a chimp catches his prey, he is immediately surrounded by beggars. Sometimes he shares, either by passively allowing others to take meat from the carcass or by actively handing meat to other chimps. Typically, the hunters, and sometimes even bystanders, get a piece. As you can imagine, this gets awfully political.

But why do we hunt in the first place? Researchers propose several hypotheses: to compensate for low food availability, to obtain mating partners, and to maintain social bonds with other males, but the last is most supported. This makes sense because chimpanzees exhibit female-biased dispersal (males remain in their natal communities while females are forced to emigrate upon adolescence). Males in a group are likely to be related, so cooperation indirectly enhances reproductive success of everyone. Besides, a male’s ability to form alliances plays a big role on his dominance status, which also means more mating opportunities.

Though my friends and I at the sanctuary do not hunt very often, our caregivers sometimes see us proudly carrying around a dead bird or frog. However, we do occasionally get meat for dinner to simulate part of the diet we would have in the wild. The fact that our desire to hunt and eat the pray that we catch is limited suggests that while coordinated hunting and meat sharing are significant in the social lives of wild chimps, they are not crucial for our survival.

Love, Patti