01 July 2007

More on our ape bro.. cousins

Before i begin to report my first Leipzig zoo visit.
1) Apes are not monkeys; in short apes are our closest cousins. Apes, just like us, have no tail, apart from a vestigial one at the base of the spine (from a taxonomic viewpoint it can be argued that humans are also apes).
2) Apes are not our ancestors! Living apes and us are as remote in time from our common ancestors. And these common ancestors were not Chimps, not Gorillas, etc... they were just "another species". (Primatologists sometimes use apes as a window in the "pre-human" human past, but they do it with great caution because only the traits we have in common are likely to be also those of our common ancestors. More on that later..)

Anyway, I just paid my first visit to the Leipzig zoo (there will be many more). This was a private visit to a select group of 30 German retirees + me + occasional rain. Ha! So I saw:
- Gorillas: from too far, in the mist.. i'll see you guys later.
- Chimps, group A: the main group was indoors, pretty chill folks, lazy adults and jumpy clumsy infants. They seemed relaxed, like at a chimp version of the Club Med, aka Chimp Med.
- Orang-Utans ("Man of the forest" in Malay, nothing to do with the color "orange" although they coincidentally do have orange hair!): wow that dominant male is quite a riot! long hair like a cloak, impressive frame... unlike in nature (where male OU are solitary), he lives with the others but seems ok with it. It's an unconventional group anyway, since it includes one female Gibbon (too old to be mated with a male of her own kind--the only strictly monogamous ape species). She grooms and gets groomed, totally accepted by the colorful Orang folks! You can imagine what other question i asked about her, well, the answer is no.
- Bonobos: only 3 males, 2 females.. and one local newborn! We only saw the 3 males who came on call, un-shy about their gigantic testicles. Now, even though I had seen pictures, it was a shock how different they are from chimps, not so much physically but those guys feel so human it's eery. The way they look at you, the way they stroll around.. the way they seem so bored and lonely. They clearly miss company, well, at least that day I saw them. More on bonobos and their potential here.
- Chimps, group B: a few females related to the dominant males of group A, were kept separately to avoid inbreeding. This group also includes a male who almost got killed in a fight with males of the main group. Godly zookeepers saved him from a grim death. This group was not in Chimp Med, but in a (large) cage and definitely more interested by our visit.

I also discovered that Chimps, Orangs and the Gibbon chick regularly walk on the ropes. Right they don't just hang and swing around (masterfully) on branches and ropes. They sometimes actually walk on rope, and stand (not squat) on branches for a while. Long arms are a perfect for balancing there. I wonder if anyone has studied that, but it seems they walk more on branches & ropes than they do on the ground. All too logic considering the environment their species adapted to..

In the end, like any zoo it's a bit depressing, though these guys have it easier than other zoos i have seen. And they are stimulated by props and toys, including primate psychology experiments. I think for their well being and development, it's very important for apes to have social interactions,.. even if with human cousins by default. As exemplified by the Gibbonette among the Orangs, there may be more room for inter-ape-species friendship than we would think.

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