Male Chimpanzees Are Bachelors, But They Can Be Good Fathers

GW researchers analyzed 25 years’ worth of behavioral data and determined male chimpanzees spend time grooming and caring for their offspring.

November 10, 2016

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Despite a reputation for being highly promiscuous, 25 years of behavioral data on chimpanzees shows males spend time grooming and caring for their offspring. (Photo credit: Joel Bray, Arizona State University)

Despite being characterized as players in the ape world, male chimpanzees also can be dutiful fathers, according to George Washington University researchers who say chimpanzees are more invested in protecting their own offspring than previously thought and spend time with non-mating females that care for the offspring.

This finding is unexpected. Researchers have questioned whether the highly promiscuous males could even recognize their offspring.

The research was led by assistant professor of anthropology Carson Murray and co-author Margaret Stanton, a postdoctoral scientist at the GW Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology.

Because males spending time with nursing mothers did not increase the likelihood that they would be the father of that mother’s next infant, the research supports the paternal effort hypothesis in which males associate more with mothers in order to protect their offspring, rather than curry favor with the female. The research contributes to the broader anthropological question of why human fathers invest so much in offspring.

The study is based on long-term data from Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania where long-term data collection is supported by the Jane Goodall Institute. Researchers used more than 25 years of behavioral data digitized at the University of Minnesota, Duke University, the Lincoln Park Zoo, Franklin & Marshall College and GW, and examined patterns based on 17 father chimpanzees and 49 mother-infant pairs to see if the males could recognize their offspring and if the male’s behavior was different around them. Researches found the males associated with the mothers of their offspring early in infancy and interacted with their infants more than expected.

“As anthropologists, we want to understand what patterns could have existed early in human evolution that help explain how human behavior evolved,” Dr. Murray said. “This research suggests that males may sometimes prioritize relationships with their offspring rather than with potential mates. For a species without pair-bonds where it was assumed fathers didn’t know which infants were their own, this is an important finding.”

Male chimpanzees have paternal recognition and invest in their offspring, not just on future mating. The researchers also found males spend time grooming and caring for their offspring.

“Our findings are not only further evidence that chimpanzee fathers recognize their offspring in a promiscuous species, but also that fathers behave differently around their offspring,” Dr. Stanton said.

While the study is an important piece of research, it does not answer the question of how human paternal behavior evolved, according to the researchers. The paper “Chimpanzee Fathers Bias Their Behavior Toward Their Offspring” was published Wednesday in the Royal Society Open Science.