Why Primates Range- but not too Far

CATEGORIES: March 2017

Contributed by: Dr. Jill D. Pruetz

Dr. Jill D. Pruetz is a Professor of Biological Anthropology and one of the leaders in her field. She does field work in Senegal with Fongoli Chimps at the Neighbor Ape projects. She is also a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and works extensively with graduate students. Learn more about Dr. Pruetz’s work here.

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Primate movement reflects a strong sense of place. Most primates live in social groups, show fidelity to a specific home-range, and move about this familiar area for their entire lives. Except in rare cases, we don’t see large-scale migration in primates. Individuals that leave the social group into which they are born at maturity face many risks as they move into unknown territory, not knowing the whereabouts of food resources or where potential predators lurk. Primate groups do use parts of their range differently according to season, usually depending on food and water availability. We know that they have an intimate knowledge of the space they live in and return again and again to resources like trees they can predict will fruit at certain times of the year. At my site in Senegal, I see chimpanzees return yearly to the same trees (among thousands) where they capture bushbaby prey. When primates do move into new areas, they behave very differently, being quiet and vigilant. We’ve also seen this in Senegal as the chimps have started to expand their home-range away from new, artisanal gold mines. As human population inevitably increases worldwide, we can expect to see more cases where primates must abandon familiar spaces and move into new ones.

The parallels between human and primate movement are interesting to note. Both species are affected by similar changes to our shared environment and we even behavior (or should behave) in similar, modest ways when we are new in town.