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Scientists Witness Chimps Killing Gorillas for the First Time Ever – The culprit? ‘Scientists are worried that climate change might have something to do with it’

New research details two fatal encounters in which wild chimpanzees attacked and killed gorillas. It’s a rare example of one great ape species attacking another—and scientists are worried that climate change might have something to do with it. …

Chimps and gorillas can be violent and territorial, but their squabbles—which can be fatal at times—happen almost exclusively within their own species. As for lethal conflicts involving two different great ape species (at least those not involving humans), that’s virtually unheard of. Hence the importance of new research published in Scientific Reports, in which scientists document two fatal clashes involving chimps and gorillas at Loango National Park in Gabon.

The reason for these seemingly unprovoked attacks is unknown, but the fatal encounters may be linked to diminished access to food. As the scientists speculate, increased food competition in Loango National Park and possibly elsewhere might be the result of climate change, though more research is needed to be sure. If this turns out to be the case, however, it’s yet another example of the natural world being turned upside down by human-instigated climate change. …

Scientists with the Loango Chimpanzee Project have been observing great apes at the park for several years, and they’re learning much about their social relationships, group dynamics, hunting behavior, and communicative abilities. From 2014 to 2018, the team documented nine occasions in which chimpanzees and gorillas hung out together, which they often do in this park and elsewhere in eastern and central Africa. As the scientists write in their study, these encounters “were always peaceful, and occasionally involved co-feeding in fruiting trees.” And as Osnabrück University cognitive scientist Simone Pika notes in a press release, the team’s colleagues from Congo have even witnessed “playful interactions between the two great ape species.”…

“If you study chimpanzees, you come to expect that any squabble can quickly turn lethal, which is a testament to their excitability but also their incredible speed and power,” Mayhew, who wasn’t involved in the study, explained in an email. “However, having this expectation doesn’t make a lethal outcome any easier to witness. Life for a young gorilla is quite dangerous—infant mortality is high—and this study again highlights their vulnerability within a group even with a formidable silverback as a dad.”

As the Max Planck Institute release points out, fruits in the tropical forests of Gabon are not as abundant as they used to be, and human-caused climate change might have something to do with that. In turn, this could be causing the observed conflict between the two great ape species. More research will be needed, especially sightings of repeat conflicts between chimps and gorillas (both at Loango and elsewhere) and investigations showing the effects of deforestation, climate change, and other factors that could be changing the way these apes use their forest space and interact with one another. As Mayhew explained, these types of pressures can push ape populations closer together, resulting in more frequent encounters and increased competition over food.

“At the moment, I think it’s safe to say that this is an outlier event, but as the authors point out, there’s quite a bit to unpack at this site in terms of the types of pressures being placed on these two ape species,” said Mayhew. “Climate change is likely to play a role in the story, but it’s difficult to say how much of a role without a more careful look.”