pluh-sen-toe-PHAY-gee: postpartum consumption of the mammalian placenta, or afterbirth
A brief overview of what I’ve been able to find about placentophagy:
While maternal placentophagy is relatively common across mammals, evidence of other, non-mother, placental consumption seems pretty scant. I have not been able to find a previously documented case of non-mother group members consuming placenta in chimps. However, as so many other things, I’m sure that if I’ve seen it, someone else must have. I happily, and eagerly, invite anyone and everyone to send me any evidence that you may have- whether from personal experience or someone else’s documented account.
Witnessing a live birth is extremely rare among wild chimpanzees (but check out this article from Nature about the similarities between human and chimpanzee birthing processes). Because of this, the data is scant, but I’ve gathered what I can about placentophagy at other sites.
Researchers at Bossou, Guinea recently reported a their second case of researchers witnessing a live birth (Fujisawa et al. 2016). In that instance, the mother consumed the placenta and, although others gathered round and inspected the baby, she did not share it with any other individuals. I learned through personal communication that there was a case of one individual female at Gombe carrying her placenta around for days after parturition until it shriveled up and turned black. While several other individuals approached her during this time and were clearly very interested in the placenta, no one other than the mother ever ate any part of it.
And then there's Kanyawara. Luckily, I've been surrounded by field assistants and PI's over the last few weeks and have been able to ask a million questions about their previous experiences here. I confirmed one report of a female burying her placenta after birth. In a second case, a different female ate her own placenta after birth. However, in most cases that we've had an observer in the right place at the right time, the placenta was never seen. This certainly does not preclude placentophagy as mothers generally build large day nests and give birth in those nests, only emerging hours after parturition to rejoin the group (Gombe: Goodall 1980, Kanyawara: unpublished data). We cannot enter such nests to check for the presence/absence of the placenta so it is impossible to comment on whether they were consumed. Further, I have seen older siblings (including this particular placentophile, Gola) entering birthing nests on multiple occasions both while mothers and newborns are still in them, and after they have left. This may provide those siblings with the opportunity to access and consume their mother’s placentas but, again, is very difficult to confirm or refute due to nesting conditions.
So again: calling all field biologists! Send more information! You can even use the comments section of this blog post to add your experience or any cases that you’ve read about or even just to name some people that I should ask about it! I am really interested to know if what we saw was truly “unique” or just under-reported!
1. Fujisawa, M., Hockings, K. J., Soumah, A. G., & Matsuzawa, T. (2016). Placentophagy in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Bossou, Guinea. Primates, 57(2), 175-180.
2. Goodall, J., & Athumani, J. (1980). An observed birth in a free-living chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Primates, 21(4), 545-549.
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This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.