Ethology Play with the little ones: the secret of chimpanzee mothers

Chimpanzee mothers (primates who share 98.6% of their DNA with humans) are the main friends of their children: they do not abandon play activities even in critical situations such as lack of food.. It reveals it studies led by Zarin Machanda, assistant professor of anthropology and biology, and his former postdoctoral fellow Kris Sabbi, currently an expert in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University Posted on Contemporary Biology.

The games performed by chimpanzee mothers, which persist even in situations of food stress, play a vital role in the physical and social development of their young. Based on a decade of observational data on these wild animals, collected in Uganda’s Kibale National Park, the researchers found that while adults play often and young chimpanzees play quite a bit when food is scarce, adults put off playing with each other and focus on survival. In the meantime, however, mother chimpanzees continue to be their offspring’s primary companions, tickling, chasing and playing airplane on a true educational journey. Kibale is the densest primate forest in the world, home to thirteen species, including more than 1,000 chimpanzees. “The play research is related to trying to understand the evolution of leadership among chimpanzees,” said Machanda. The practice of play is not very common in nature, at least among adult animals. Young mammals often play, but mostly among themselves or at the expense of an irritable, passive adult. Dolphins and monkeys are exceptions. Natural selection tends to suppress play in favor of foraging, predator tracking, and mating.

In chimpanzees, however, adult play serves to strengthen social bonds. “I think what sets primates apart is that they grow longer than other mammals,” Machanda said. “In addition, they have highly developed brains and live in structured groups with very specific rules that govern the interactions between individuals,” Machanda continued. “The game allows them to develop not only physical skills but also social interaction skills,” Machanda added. The social structure of the chimpanzee world may also explain why chimpanzee mothers sometimes become the main mates of their young. These animals they have a highly variable social system called “fission-fusion”, which means that a group of 60 chimpanzees, for example, can belong to smaller subgroups that separate for days or weeks, which then rejoin as other groups separate. When food is scarce, chimpanzee mothers tend to split into smaller groups or remain alone with their young. “But in doing so, they also limit young children’s ability to play with others and become the primary teammates,” Sabbi noted. “In a larger group, they trade less food competition for time and energy spent playing with their young,” Sabbi explained. In comparison, a group of 60 baboons always stays together, so the cubs always have other baboons their age nearby to play with. Baboon mothers do not usually play with their babies. Play among chimpanzees is often divided by gender. “It is not uncommon to see male chimpanzees engaging in more aggressive play while females engage in parenting play,” Machanda pointed out.

“If we make a comparison with human beings, it is very easy to find a lot of evidence in the child psychology literature about how important it is for human mothers and fathers to play with their children, especially at a very young age. Fathers are the main teammates before children they will open up to their social networks,” concluded Sabbi.


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