Elusive African Apes: Giant Chimps or New Species?[EXCERPT]
for National Geographic News
|April 14, 2003|
|A mysterious group of apes found in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa has scientists and conservationist scratching their heads. The apes nest on the ground like gorillas but have a diet and features characteristic of chimpanzees. The detective story began in 1908 when a Belgian army officer returned home with several gorilla skulls from near the town of Bili on the Uele River and gave them to the Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. In 1927 the museum’s curator classified the skulls as a new subspecies of gorilla, Gorilla gorilla uellensis. In 1996, Swiss-born, Kenya-based wildlife photographer and conservationist Karl Ammann embarked on a quest to rediscover the mysterious gorillas. To date, Ammann has not found the gorilla. But he has collected a wealth of information including skulls, ground nests, hair and fecal samples, footprints, and, most recently, photographs of what appears to be a chimpanzee that behaves like a gorilla.
Ground Nesting Chimp?
Since Ammann launched his quest, he has led expeditions into the Bili forest in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo where the original skulls were recovered. On his first trip, Ammann recovered a skull which had a pronounced ridge on its forehead characteristic of gorilla. The rest of the measurements link the skull to that of a chimpanzee. Ground nests are characteristic of gorillas. Chimpanzees are thought to prefer to sleep in trees. However, an analysis of feces found in the nests suggests that whatever left them was eating a diet rich in fruits, a diet characteristic of chimpanzees, not gorillas. Other evidence collected from the site includes hair samples, which have been sent out to various laboratories for DNA analysis. The initial results indicate they belong to a chimpanzee. All of this evidence is causing the researchers to believe that what Ammann has found is a chimpanzee that behaves like a gorilla.
Local hunters in the region added to the mystery when they told Ammann and his colleagues about two kinds of chimpanzees in the region. Normal chimps, so-called “tree-beaters,” are easily killed with poisonous arrows when they feed in trees. Another, large chimpanzee seldom climbs trees and does not succumb to the poison arrows shot by the hunters. Called “lion killers,” these big chimpanzees flee through the thick forest and disappear when shot at by hunters. Evidence for these giant chimpanzees collected by Ammann includes a photograph of a cadaver alongside the hunter that killed it and casts of some large footprints. The pronounced ridge, called a sagittal crest, on the skull that Ammann found in 1996 is thought to be formed to support large jaw muscles, an indication of large body size.
BILI APE / BONDO APE