You might have picked up on this by now since we’ve mentioned it a few times, but it is unseasonably warm these days in central Washington. So on this spring-like January afternoon, we decided to put out a lunch forage for the chimps. Negra, who often chooses to stay inside even on a day like today, also went out for the forage!
She spotted a chunk of chow, but knew Jamie was headed for it, so she asked if it was okay to have it. Jamie is the boss, so it’s wise to ask her permission for things like this, however Negra is respected as the eldest and so she sometimes has the prerogative to just take what she would like without argument. In this case, Jamie was gunning for this particular high-prized item, so Negra was smart enough to ask for it.
Chimpanzees have a very complex way of asking if it’s all right to take something like this. They will reach out for reassurance from other members of the group, usually directed to a higher-ranking individual, making sure everyone is on board with their plan. Reassurance also happens during and after conflicts, as a way to ask for someone to back them up or make sure everything is okay. Today, Negra asked Jamie and Missy for reassurance before taking the chunk of chow. I’ll explain what is going on in each of the following photos:
Negra spotted the chow. She starts to whimper, as you can see by her trumpeted lips. A whimper is exactly what it sounds like, a sound of distress and in this case, she beginning to ask for reassurance.
Then Negra fear grimaced. Chimpanzees make this expression in times of distress or overwhelming excitement. This is a very clear communication to follow up her whimper that she really needs to know it’s all right for her to take the chow.
Jamie approaches, bipedal, which is an intimating gesture for chimpanzees—maybe to assert her position as the most dominant member in the group. Once she gets closer to Negra, she turns around and offers her back for Negra to touch and give her an open mouth kiss and breathy pant. This is basically where Jamie is giving Negra the okay to go ahead.
However, Missy came running down right in the middle of Jamie giving Negra permission to see what was so exciting, so Negra had to run it past Missy as well. Here she’s giving Missy an open mouth kiss, and then reaches for the chow while Missy looks on.
Success! Negra got this high-prized item and had no problem getting permission from the other chimpanzees. She also gathered some carrots on her way back to the chimp house. Just look at how proud she is with her mouthful of food!
This entire communication of reassurance between Negra, Jamie, and Missy happened in about 15 seconds. Chimp language is very intricate and complex!