Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Food for sex among primates


This picture of a chimp feasting on wild figs is one of many from Uganda that I have in my collection. It was taken as students went "chimp tracking" with guides in Kibale National Park.
The report on the BBC website about chimpanzee behaviour and the exchange of meat for sex that you can see here reminds me of those teaching trips. In Kibale, which is a tropical rain forest that holds thirteen species of primate, and is our first destination after leaving Kampala, we are privileged to spend time with a remarkable professor from Makerere University. It is Dr. Gil Basuta (seen here) who tells us a great deal about the primates in the forest, and particularly about chimpanzees. When it comes to their behaviour he refers the students to Dutchman Frans de Waal ‘s book Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes.

Gil’s teaching talent make it possible for his audience to imagine themselves as alpha male chimps, and in his words “stand hunched like NFL linemen” as they wait for the spoils of a monkey hunt to be passed to them. He has often speculated about the food for sex business, and now there is solid evidence from researcher Cristina Gomes and her colleagues, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. It was Cristina Gomes who took the photos that go with the story, and here is one of them. One of the study’s most fascinating elements is not so much that meat is exchanged for immediate sex, but that the sharing will lead to opportunities for copulation at a later date. She is quoted as saying
"Males might share meat with a female one day, and only copulate with her a day or two later."

When I passed this BBC story URL along to groups of students who had been in Uganda with me one of them responded “and there are still people who do not believe that we are descended from apes.” A further thought: Why do dates among people often involve nice meals?

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