Famous Chimps of Gombe
Written By: Elodie Freymann, JGI USA
Category: Great Apes
Over the course of her life, Dr. Jane Goodall has observed and recorded the habits of many of the wild chimpanzees living in Gombe National Park. When Jane first arrived in 1960, little was known about the complexities of primate behaviour.
Though Jane made many remarkable discoveries during her first few years in the field, one of her most groundbreaking realizations was that chimpanzees experience emotions previously believed to be uniquely human. Through years of patient observation and thorough research, Dr. Goodall grew familiar with many of the individual chimpanzees inhabiting Gombe, learning about their distinct personalities and characteristics. She also studied the family dynamics and social hierarchies that dictate chimpanzees’ daily life. This work has greatly assisted the scientific community as well as environmental activists and wildlife conservationists. On the 60th anniversary of Jane’s first trip to Gombe, it is our honour to re-introduce to you some of Dr. Goodall’s most famous primate companions.
Dr. Goodall’s favourite chimpanzee, after all of these years, is still David Greybeard, the very first individual at Gombe to have trusted Jane. David Greybeard, easily recognizable by his silver facial hair, was also the first chimp Jane saw using tools and the first she observed eating meat.
David was a good friend not only to Dr. Goodall, but also to his companion Goliath. David often comforted Goliath by placing a hand on his head or body, particularly when Jane was observing the two chimps. He was very tolerant and kind, maintaining a gentle temperament even while others grew aggressive. David, in addition to all that he taught Dr. Goodall about primate behaviour, also helped her by bringing other chimps with him when he visited her camp.
Without David’s helpful introductions, Jane may not have been able to meet the other Gombe chimps. Jane believes that David Greybeard died during a pneumonia epidemic in 1968.
Time Magazine named David one of the 15 most influential animals that ever lived.
Flo (Approx. 1929-1972)
Flo was the dominant matriarch when Jane arrived in Gombe. First appearing in Jane’s camp in 1962, Flo was always accompanied by her daughter Fifi and son Figan. In addition to these two offspring, Flo also had an older son named Faben and eventually gave birth to two more: Flint and Flame.
Flo was a strong and easygoing mother, always giving her children food when they seemed to want it and tenderly grooming them. Though physically she appeared somewhat frail, Jane writes that Flo was “tough as nails.” Easily recognizable by the notch in her right ear, Flo and her progeny gave Jane access and insight into the intricacies of chimpanzee family life.
When Flo and her youngest son Flint died crossing a stream in 1972, Britain’s Sunday Times published an obituary for her. Jane says she cried when she heard the news.
Figan (Approx. 1954-1982)
Figan, Flo’s son, became alpha male after he usurped his older brother Faben’s dominant position in the social hierarchy. Though the two initially became distant following this takeover, the brothers eventually became close again.
Figan, still a juvenile when Dr. Goodall first observed him, eventually grew to be a strong and strategic leader. Early in Figan’s life he showed signs of weakness, rushing to others for reassurance when tensions rose and revealing an overall lack of self-confidence. His ability to manipulate and deliberately fool others, however, became a clear advantage during his rise to power.
Dr. Goodall observed Figan on more than one occasion leading others away from a food source, only to return on his own and claim the food for himself. Though Figan’s control over other males occasionally faltered, he managed to repeatedly regain authority with the help of various allies and family members.
Fifi, Flo’s only daughter, eventually became a dominant matriarch herself. Over the years Fifi gave birth to nine offspring: Freud, Frodo, Fanni, Flossi, Faustino, Ferdinand, Freud, Flirt and Furaha.
When Jane first arrived at Gombe, Fifi was only two years old and often rode around on her mother’s back. As a young chimpanzee, Fifi was curious and vivacious. As she got older, however, she did not have many friends and rarely sought out the company of others. In fact, Fifi’s only reliable friend was her mother Flo. When she was ten, Fifi was one of the only female chimps to excel at throwing, though her aim was poor.
Fifi disappeared in 2004 and was soon presumed dead. She was the last surviving chimpanzee at Gombe from Dr. Goodall’s early days.
Freud, Fifi’s eldest son, became alpha male in the summer of 1993 after defeating Wilkie. He was 22 at the time. This title, however, did not last long — in 1997, after contracting mange, Freud was defeated by his brother Frodo.
Freud rose to power with the help of not only his mother Fifi but also his uncle Figan. Despite his influential family, Freud was not the obvious candidate for this position due to his calm demeanour and average size. Freud remained relatively peaceful during his time as alpha male and was a kind and gentle role-model. Once deposed by his aggressive brother, Freud left the community for a couple months. His return was surprisingly peaceful, and not once did he try to reclaim power.
Though Freud, old and tired, lived out the rest of his years with his family, he maintained somewhat of a distance from the rest of the community. In the years before Freud’s death, he was the oldest male at Gombe. He died in 2014 at the age of 43, one of the first wild chimps to have had his entire life recorded by researchers.
Frodo, unlike his brother Freud, was a violent and unpopular bully.
As the largest and heaviest chimp at Gombe, Frodo was able to overthrow his brother in 1997 using sheer force. Dr. Goodall, in an interview with National Geographic, stated that “very often, if two were playing, if they saw Frodo come along, they stopped playing. Because they knew as soon as he joined in, he’d hurt one of them.”
Frodo became famous after he attacked Gary Larson during the cartoonist’s trip to Gombe in 1988. Frodo fell from power in 2002 after growing sick and eventually died in 2013.
Goblin, the son of Melissa, was known for his persistence and stubborn nature. At birth, his face appeared almost to twist like a hobgoblin, a feature that led to his comical name. Dr. Goodall was present for Goblin’s birth, and discusses it in a chapter of “In the Shadow of Man.”
In 1982, Goblin became the youngest male to reign as alpha male, a position which he maintained until 1990. Motivated from an early age, Goblin used to wake up early to push other chimpanzees out of their nests. After his fall from power, Goblin formed alliances with his future successors — first Freud and then Frodo.
Goblin fathered at least two of Fifi’s children. In 2004, the same year that Fifi disappeared, Goblin grew very sick and died.
Dr. Goodall loves Gremlin. Born in 1970 to Melissa, Gremlin is the most successful mother at Gombe and continues to serve as a major matriarchal figure in her community.
Gremlin has five surviving children. The most famous of these offspring are her twins, Golden and Glitter. Gremlin has shown an affinity for mothering since she was ten years old, demonstrating maternal instincts as she helped Melissa care for her younger brother, Gimble.
Gremlin, in more recent years has demonstrated an interesting desire to “adopt” her grandchildren. She has now demonstrated this desire twice, commandeering her daughter Gaia’s infant, Godot, as well as her daughter Glitter’s newborn, Gossamer. Unfortunately, neither of these two babies survived. Gremlin is a sweet, warm, and kind-hearted chimp.
Golden and Glitter (1998-Present)
In 1998, to the great excitement of Dr. Goodall and the researchers at Gombe, the twins Golden and Glitter were born! Twins are rare, and Golden and Glitter remain one out of only three sets to be born at Gombe. Often times, twins do not survive past infancy. This is due to attacks from other chimps, insufficient care from the mother and a variety of other factors.
Golden and Glitter were very lucky. Gaia, Gremlin’s older daughter, helped care for the twins during their early years. During this time, Golden preferred to stay close to Gremlin so Gaia helped out more with Glitter.
Though both of the twins are female, each has a distinct personality. Golden is brave, social, and willing to explore. Glitter is more inventive, careful, and shy. In 2004, when they were six, the two separated from their mother to seek independence away from home. During this excursion, they demonstrated not only their sisterly bond but also their reliance on one another for comfort and care. It will be exciting watching them grow in the next few years!
Sparrow (Approx. 1957-Present)
At approximately 63 years old, Sparrow is currently the oldest chimpanzee at Gombe. She is a strong, old chimp, who has successfully raised many offspring. While one of her sons went on to briefly become alpha male, another one of her sons, Sinbad, still travels with her despite his mature age.
Sparrow immigrated to the Kasekela study community in 1971, and though she is the undisputed matriarch of the “S Family,” she is somewhat of a loner and keeps to herself. Though getting on in years, Sparrow’s wise and honest eyes still reveal the fortitude of her spirit.