Moon is an incredible little chimpanzee. When I first met him in 2013 I fell in love with his eyes- they are like bright honey-colored amber, just like his mother’s. Back then his face was light and he was so shy. Often, when I followed him all I could see were his gorgeous, sweetly curious eyes peeked out at me between stalks of vegetation. In the late spring of 2014, when he was only five years old, Moon joined a party with his older brother, but his mother, Mususu, has disappeared and was never seen again. Moon became enfuzi: an orphan. And a particularly disadvantaged one at that. He was barely weaned, was from the very Northern edge of the community, and his only surviving relative was his older brother, Max, our famously footless male chimp. Max is a great brother, but he isn’t a strong ally for a young juvenile male suddenly thrust into the an adult social world. When I first heard the sad news, I was afraid we’d lose Moon too by the time I got back to the forest, but today he’s still going strong on the fast track to becoming a Big Man.
Chimpanzees are born with light faces and bright white patches of hair around their bums that resemble cotton-tails on a bunny (for evidence see 90% of the photographs I’ve ever posted on this site, especially any of Utah). As they grow up and reach the far end of puberty, their faces tend to darken and the bunny tails fade away. Generally, by about the age of 14-or-so the transformation is complete1: bunny tails evaporated and facial skin settled into its adult tone.
But for Moon, it all came on so early. Seven years old and his bunny tail is a tiny curl of off-white stray hairs. His complexion already resembles that of a fully adult male. Now the color contrasts with his eyes, making them shine ever brighter. And his attitude is very grown up and serious. As opposed to the general juvenile rough-housing exhibited by his peers (Wallace and Quiver), Moon spends much more of his social time grooming like a grown-up with the grown-ups. Obviously he doesn’t have time for silly kid games. When he isn’t with his older brother Max, he prefers the company of Alpha Eslom and follows him closely. Joining the Boss Man’s entourage doesn’t always stop Moon from getting bullied by the adult females or upwardly social subadult males, but it does seem to take the edge off2. Moon’s adult-like demeanor is betrayed only by his tiny size. All together he resembles a shrunken adult chimp- more so than the other juveniles who look and act their age.
Moon on the left playing with Thatcher on the right. He's a few years older than she is, but notice her big fluffy bunny bum to his tiny little tuft?
I’ve watched and worried over Moon for years now and, possibly because of his particular history, documenting each of his steps toward adulthood has been more fulfilling than I can tell. It must sound ridiculous, but every milestone he hurdles on the way to becoming a grown-up chimp fills me with a surreal and visceral sort of pride that is difficult to describe. Moon might be the ultimate underdog at Kanyawara, but I have a lot of hope for him. He might be an orphan, but then so is Eslom so maybe even Moon could grow up into an alpha one day. The sweetest moments, some of the best memories I have in the field, are those rare ones when he remembers his true age, dissolving into chimp-giggles over a hard core tickle-fight with another chimp kid. Moon’s play bouts are some of my favorite play bouts.
Moon’s eyes and facial expressions convey his meek and wary but equally resilient personality. Because of his shy personality, he is one of the most challenging juveniles to photograph. He doesn’t like things pointed at him and, as he is rarely distracted by play like the other young-ins so often are, capturing Moon in the frame requires quite a bit more patience and subtlety than other kiddies. Generally, I wait to photograph Moon until after I finish his two-hour focal follow for the day. The focal time warms him up a bit and, in the break after following him and before I start on the next chimp, I can give him the time to forget about the camera. Those gorgeous eyes and the chimpanzee behind them are so much more than worth the effort.
1Just a quick note that there aren’t any published papers that I know off the top of my head about this particular aspect of chimpanzee development, so my statement here is simply what the field assistants and Drew and I have noticed here at Kanyawara. And, of course, there is a quite a bit of variation in how long chimps keep their tufts.
2 This is a feeling, not an official observation. But stay tuned because Drew and I are both investigating juvenile social strategies and differences in juveniles’ social experience in our dissertation work. I’ll let you know as soon as possible if the math confirms my feelings about whether and how Moon deals extra aggression compared to similarly-aged males with mothers.
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This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.