Chimpanzees eat smart when it comes to mealtime

Chimpanzees watch what they eat and when, which may show that these primates are giving some thought to the quality of their food, according to Purdue University research.

March 25, 2013

Chimpanzees watch what they eat and when, which may show that these primates are giving some thought to the quality of their food, according to Purdue University research. The study’s results are published in the American Journal of Primatology.

“There is an association between the time of day primates eat certain resources and the nutritional quality of those resources, suggesting consumption may track nutrient content,” said Bryce Carlson, Assistant Professor of Anthropology who studies primate ecology and nutrition in human evolution. Carlson, who is a member of Purdue’s Ingestive Behavior Research Center, is studying the dietary habits of wild chimpanzees as part of his research on the history of diet in human evolution.

Chimpanzees frequently consume various leaves at the end of the day. Other researchers have proposed the animals prefer eating leaves at that time to feel full and facilitate greater nutrient absorption overnight, or that this daily eating pattern results from social dynamics, where chimpanzees typically spend late afternoons in smaller foraging groups on the ground where these leaves are found.

Data regarding the chimpanzees and two species of saplings, Pterygota mildbraedii and Celtis africana, were collected from Ngogo in Uganda’s Kibale National Park. Daily feeding observations from 2002–2011, made primarily during the dry season months of June through August, of 41 adult male chimpanzees were analyzed for eating patterns. These were compared to nutrition samples from Pterygota mildbraedii and Celtis africana. Leaf samples were taken from different saplings and at various feeding times during the day.

Pterygota mildbraedii is a very large tree, common throughout the Ngogo chimpanzee habitat. The chimpanzees, however, eat young leaves of the saplings found near the forest floor. This study found that the leaves’ hemicellulose—a more digestible fiber—and nonstructural carbohydrates—simple sugars and starch—increased 15% to 100%, respectively, from morning to evening. Cellulose and lignin, which make the leaves more difficult to digest, also decreased by day’s end. Celtis africana is a smaller tree than Pterygota, the saplings of which contain many thin branches and small leaves. The sugars in this plant’s leaves were found to double from morning to late afternoon.

“If these sugars or total non-structural carbohydrates are increasing, then the leaves are returning more calories late in the day,” said Carlson. “At this time, they may taste sweeter, and the chimpanzees may then learn and adjust their feeding behavior accordingly. We know they use vision, texture, taste, and smell to gauge when to eat fruit, so it’s understandable to think they may do the same with leaves.”

Carlson’s research will continue to focus on diet for wild chimpanzees and human ancestors.

“Questions about what humans are eating today and why are important as our growing world population increasingly struggles with malnutrition tightly linked with quality of life, morbidity, and mortality,” said Carlson. “Evolution for any species is related to, and even driven by, food availability and quality, so the more we learn about our long history with food, the better able we are to make individual and population level recommendations for consumer behavior today and for years to come.”

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