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john hawks weblog

paleoanthropology, genetics and evolution

Photo Credit: Chimpanzees at Gombe, by Gill Penney CC-BY 2.0

A chimpanzee termite-eating story

Micaela Jemison of Smithsonian Science describes a recent study by Robert O’Malley investigating the use of termites by wild chimpanzees at Gombe. The piece is a nice one for students, including video and some background on how primatologists have studied insect consumption by chimpanzees in the past.

O’Malley’s work emphasized the nutritional content of the termites, including the surprising fact that some termites are up to 25% fat.

Though most of their diet is ripe fruit, chimpanzees are omnivores like humans, not only eating insects but also meat, hunting animals such as monkeys and piglets. So why would chimpanzees spend so much time, more than four hours on some days, collecting and eating such a tiny food when they could be hunting?
“Going after insects is much safer, especially if mothers have their young with them,” Power explains. “The females are a lot more patient and often more skilled at termite fishing than the males. Males often don’t stay around if they don’t quickly get a good return. The females, however, stick it out, maybe because they realize they have a guaranteed source of food.”

Of course, termite consumption may have been an important aspect of human origins, as some of the earliest bone tools seem to have been used for breaking into termite mounds. These insects have intersected with our evolutionary history in many ways, as a prominent intersection between above-ground and subterranean resources.