In a new study from the University of Exeter, scientists have investigated how wild chimpanzee social networks are impacted by human-dominated landscapes. The researchers discovered that male and female chimpanzees react much differently to human presence.
“Wild animals are being forced to modify their behavior due to the risks of living alongside humans,” said study lead author Zoe Satsias.
By observing chimpanzees in forests and human-dominated landscapes, the researchers determined that females tend to avoid human presence, particularly those with dependent offspring. This avoidance may be because the females are less likely to risk the danger associated with human presence. These risks include the humans themselves, dogs, livestock, snares, traps, and roads.
Males seem to feel much differently. In fact, Dr. Matt McLennan, who runs the Bulindi Chimpanzee and Community Project, said that male chimpanzees seem unperturbed by the prospect of running into people, and are even willing to engage in confrontations with villagers.
The differences in behavior affect chimpanzee social structure. Dr. Kimberly Hockings is an expert in the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall. She explained that males and females were equally central in their social networks inside the forest – but in more risky croplands and village areas, the core of the social network was dominated exclusively by males.
This change in social structure could lead to devastating consequences for chimpanzee populations as human encroachment continues.
“The avoidance of certain areas by females – resulting in them being in the periphery of their social networks – could disrupt the spread of information and reduce social learning opportunities for younger chimpanzees, potentially suppressing the learning of new behaviors that could help them survive,” said Dr. Hockings.
“Large animal species are most likely to survive human-induced rapid environmental change if they display high levels of behavioral flexibility,” wrote the study authors.
“Examining social responses in species that form closely bonded social groups and display high fission-fusion dynamics, such as chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, will help determine their resilience to dynamic human activities and the potential for sustainable human-wildlife interactions.”
The research is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.