Animal care staff recently noticed two new white teeth peeking out through the gums of infant chimpanzee Jane. Now 6 months old, when the baby yawns, she reveals six pearly whites. As Jane wakes up, laying on her mom Abby’s chest, she stretches out her spindly legs, releases her grip on her mother’s hair and looks around. Everything in her world is something new to explore and we’ve already started to see Jane’s curious and intelligent nature.
Jane took her first steps tentatively. Holding on to Abby with one hand for support, she tried to reach forward to grab onto something sturdy to balance herself. It took the little one about a week to be coordinated and confident enough to move her foot to take a step, but after that she was ready to explore! Climbing was her next big feat. At first, she held onto Abby for extra support but she soon was ready to reach new heights without mom’s help. Each day, Jane would venture a little bit higher and test out her strength and balance by letting go of one of her hands.
The rest of the troop is still enamored with their newest addition. Many individuals can be seen sitting near Abby and grooming her, just to get a closer look at their youngest member. Occasionally, with her stumbling walk, Jane will reach out her hand to them to greet them, a chimpanzee communication she has learned from watching her mom and others. Some of the chimpanzees are gentle with her and will lightly place a hand onto Jane’s back while she sits between the adults or gently, with one finger, touch the top of her head. Abby is popular in the troop now that she is carrying a little one on her chest as all of the other chimpanzees want to spend time around Jane.
While others admire the little girl without touching, her half-sister Zuhura is overjoyed to have a young playmate. It’s clear Zuhura cannot wait until Jane gets older and can follow her around the habitat and play. Still young herself at age 5, Zuhura can be a little rough when she plays with her youngest sister. When Jane seems to have had enough, Abby disciplines her granddaughter (Zuhura) with a quick grunt and shake of her hand, which tells her to stop.
Play is an important part of a young chimpanzee’s life as they learn important skills for when they reach adulthood, such as running, climbing, wrestling and displaying. Play bouts also teach young chimpanzees social skills such as dominance, submission, confidence and reconciliation. So, although sometimes Zuhura can appear to be rough with Jane, don’t worry! Jane is learning new behaviors from this playtime and if you look closely, you might even see both of them laughing just like human children do. For now, Abby is always just an arm’s reach away in case Jane needs support or to get away from her stronger, older sister.
Jane has also started to pick up objects such as sticks, tiny handfuls of bedding, pieces of primate chow and orange peels that Abby discards. Every item she picks up seems to promptly go to her mouth for inspection or to use as a teething toy. Animal care staff use a small plastic spoon used to feed mashed bananas and baby food to Jane each meal. Occasionally, Abby shares small bites of her own produce. Romaine lettuce appears to be Jane’s new favorite, as she typically takes the whole piece from her mother’s mouth and although she’s not yet consuming it, she shreds it and bites it into tiny pieces for Abby to forage for when Jane is through with it. Although Jane is sampling food items, she still nurses and relies on her mother as her primary source of nutrition.
In the coming months, Jane will be more easily visible as she will transition to being carried on Abby’s back and venture a little further away from her mom, but not yet out of reach. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot Jane playing with her sisters, Zuhura and Akira, 7, or see the elder chimpanzees gently grooming her. The newest chimpanzee has brought much excitement to the troop and she continues to grow in size and personality every day.
– Melissa Thueme is a mammal supervisor for the Detroit Zoological Society.