Fongoli chimpanzees first made headlines in 2007, when researchers observed the apes using tools hunt vertebrate prey—making them the first known animal, other than humans, to do so. In the years since, the scientists have continued to study this special community of primates found in southeastern Senegal. In a paper published today in the Royal Society Open Science, the researchers now report another noteworthy observation: The females of the group are the ones most likely to make and utilize the chimps' hunting spears.
The researchers discovered that female Fongolis accounted for more than 60 percent of all spear-use. What’s more, lead author Jill Pruetz speculates that it was the female chimps that first invented the spear. “In a number of primate species, females are the innovators and more frequent tool users,” Pruetz tells Discovery News.
The ape ladies’ crafty ways aren’t that surprising: With less brawn – and often burdened by infants riding on their backs or bellies – the females would have to use their brains in order to catch enough food to keep up.
“The tools (spears) are made from living tree branches that are detected and then modified by removing all side branches and leaves, as well as the flimsy terminal end of the branch,” Pruetz explains. “Some individuals further trim the tip of the tool with their teeth.” The apes then use the tools to stab their favored prey, a sleeping bushbaby, injuring their victim enough to then bite and kill it relatively easily. Over the course of the study, the researches recorded 308 spear-hunting events.
The scientists believe the Fongoli chimpanzees’ hunting technique “could have originated with a common ancestor of humans and chimps, suggesting that the earliest humans hunted in a similar manner,” Jennifer Viegas writes in Discovery News.
But the study isn’t all about girl power. While male chimps are more likely to catch their prey with brute force, they still account for 70 percent of total captures. And the Fongoli guys are nicer than most about it, too: while in most chimp troops larger males often steal from their subordinates, “dominant males at Fongoli support females and younger males by allowing them to keep their own kills,” ABC Australia reports.
Maybe this behavior provides clues as to the origin of courtesy. Or, maybe, it just shows that these male chimps are smart enough to know that their female counterparts have the wits and tools to defend themselves against any monkey business.