Chimpanzees on the savanna benefit from grassland fires

Chimpanzees living on the savannas in Senegal benefit from fires that often rage in their habitat. In burned areas, the chimps search one spot for food one and a half to four times shorter than in unaffected areas, which is a clear sign that they quickly find a lot of food.

American primatologists Nicole Herzog and Jill Pruetz and American anthropologist Kirsten Hawkes see in this advantage of burnt area a first phase of dealing with fire that human ancestors must have also exhibited millions of years ago, they write in an article in the newspaper. Journal of Human Evolution† In humans, this familiarity with fire eventually turned into active fire use, at least from 400,000 years ago or, according to controversial estimates, from 2 million years ago. A grass fire can make extremely hard nuts easier to open, roots and fruit become more visible and the terrain more accessible.

modern people

The chimpanzee colony studied lives on the sweltering summer savanna near the Fongoli River in southeastern Senegal. Chimps, with the bonobos, are the closest relatives of modern humans, whose distant ancestors also lived on savannas. The Fongoli chimps have many parallels with early humans: they too live in caves (against the heat), they hunt with spears and they also keep a remarkably close watch to make sure they don’t go too far away from water sources. They also have a broader diet than the ‘regular’ chimpanzees that live in the forest mainly on fruit and leaves.

In a normal dry season, three quarters of chimpanzee territory is affected by fire. The fires are sometimes started by people nearby to reduce the nuisance of the tall grass when traveling through the area and to better see if there are dangerous animals in the area. In a Previous research Pruetz and Herzog have already established that the chimps can handle the risks well and dodge even the largest fires with great calmness. They also have a preference for foraging in the burnt areas, the researchers noticed at the time. They prefer to rest and fleas prefer to rest in intact areas.

The researchers now linked close observations (including GPS data) of the foraging behavior of a total of 13 chimpanzees (803 hours in total) during the dry season to 91 large and small fires raging in their area.

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