Unusual event at Gombe: Gremlin "adopted" grandson

Even after 47 years of being observed day in and day out, the chimpanzees of Gombe continue to surprise.

In a story that ultimately has a sad ending, Jane's favorite living Gombe chimpanzee, Gremlin, took her daughter's infant as her own earlier this year. Gombe researchers Emily Wroblewski and Matendo Msafiri estimated that the infant was not more than 48 hours old at the time. Although the young chimpanzee's life was ultimately quite short, his story is unprecedented. Such behavior had never before been documented, as far as we know.

Jane Goodall named the chimpanzee infant Godot, after Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, as so much uncertainty surrounded the infant's future.

Why did Gremlin take the baby from her daughter Gaia? It is impossible to say for certain. No one witnessed Godot's birth or his first day of life. Fanni, another Gombe chimpanzee, was present during Gremlin's sudden possession of Godot shortly after his birth in April. Researchers speculate that Gremlin was seeking to protect the infant, for Fanni and her late mother, Fifi, had tried to snatch Gremlin's newborns in the past. Female chimpanzees will sometimes steal and cannibalize other mothers' newborns.

Michael Wilson, director of field research at the Center, wrote that, "Whatever the reason for taking the infant in the first place, Gremlin kept the infant and has never returned it to Gaia. Gaia did not attempt to retrieve the infant, nor has she shown much interest in the baby." Researchers had difficulty assessing her mental state after losing her baby. She stayed close to her mother and her infant, grooming and eating with both. Although she was not seen trying to touch her baby, researchers believe there was little she could do to retrieve her child from a possessive Gremlin.

Another surprising element of the story is that Gremlin already had a suckling infant, Gimli. But she was experienced in nursing two infants simultaneously, having successfully raised Gombe's famous twins, Golden and Glitter. Gremlin carried her son, Gimli, on her back, while grandson Godot hung from her belly.

At first Godot's future seemed promising; at two weeks old his vocalizations were strong, his neck strength appeared good, and he was able to track sounds.

But while the infant was able to suckle normally from his grandmother, it's possible he missed some or all of Gaia' colostrum fluid – crucial to the infant's ability to fight disease.

Gimli, meanwhile, fared quite well in the face of his nephew's sudden intrusion. He continued to play normally and didn't show signs of depression. Gremlin allowed him to ride and suckle whenever he desired.

In September 2006, sad news from Gombe. Although Godot had "bright eyes, and was able to cling to Gremlin," he appeared weak and rather small for his age. On September 25, Gombe scientist Michael Wilson wrote, "his grip loosened, and eventually he closed his eyes and died." Gremlin carried her grandson's body for the rest of the day.

Researchers believe Godot's death to be due to malnutrition or illness rather than to injury.

Did you know?
Jane Goodall documented a period in which two female chimpanzees Passion and Pom stole several newborns from their mothers. You can read about this behavior in Jane's book Through a Window.

Click here to read a Gombe blog entry about Gaia and see her photo.

 

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