Maternal cannibalism in two populations of wild chimpanzees


Fedurek P, Tkaczynski P, Asiimwe C, Hobaiter C, Samuni L, Lowe AE, Dijrian AG, Zuberbühler K, Wittig RM & Crockford C (2020) Maternal cannibalism in two populations of wild chimpanzees. Primates, 61 (2), p. 181–187.

Maternal cannibalism has been reported in several animal taxa, prompting speculations that the behavior may be part of an evolved strategy. In chimpanzees, however, maternal cannibalism has been conspicuously absent, despite high levels of infant mortality and reports of non-maternal cannibalism. The typical response of chimpanzee mothers is to abandon their deceased infant, sometimes after prolonged periods of carrying and grooming the corpse. Here, we report two anomalous observations of maternal cannibalism in communities of wild chimpanzees in Uganda and Ivory Coast and discuss the evolutionary implications. Both infants likely died under different circumstances; one apparently as a result of premature birth, the other possibly as a result of infanticide. In both cases, the mothers consumed parts of the corpse and participated in meat sharing with other group members. Neither female presented any apparent signs of ill health before or after the events. We concluded that, in both cases, cannibalizing the infant was unlikely due to health-related issues by the mothers. We discuss these observations against a background of chimpanzee mothers consistently refraining from maternal cannibalism, despite ample opportunities and nutritional advantages. We conclude that maternal cannibalism is extremely rare in this primate, likely due to early and strong mother–offspring bond formation, which may have been profoundly disrupted in the current cases.

Animal Science and Zoology; Cannibalism; Chimpanzee; Maternal cannibalism; Parental investment

Primates: Volume 61, Issue 2

Publication date31/03/2020
Publication date online05/10/2019
Date accepted by journal25/09/2019
PublisherSpringer Science and Business Media LLC