When You're an Alpha Chimp, Life Isn't a Barrel of Monkeys

Chimpanzees are clever creatures that are known for learning skills to make their lives easier, like using twigs to pull tasty termites out of their dirt mounds for an easy snack.

But in a surprising scene that unfolds in a clip from BBC America's new series, "Dynasties," male chimps, in particular, don't have it so easy. Male chimpanzees must fight and outwit other males if they want to make it to the top and have a chance at mating. In the clip, the alpha-male chimp David is unable to let his guard down even for a moment as rival males taunt him while staying just out of reach.

The second episode of "Dynasties" airs this Saturday (Jan. 26) at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST on BBC America, and highlights the story of David, the long-reigning alpha male of the Fongoli chimpanzees in Senegal, West Africa.

At the time the BBC filmed the episode, David had been in the alpha male position for more than three years, and he was no stranger to the never-ending fight to stay in charge. An article published in the International Journal of Primatology in 2017 provides a glimpse of what David is up against. The article described the dramatic story of how David's predecessor, Foudouko, lost his position as alpha male and met a violent end at the hands of his former group members. [In Photos: The Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzees]

A leader in exile

Foudouko ruled the Fongoli group for at least two years. Like many alpha-male chimps, Foudouko had a strong male ally, Mamadou, who acted as Foudouko's second-in-command. When Mamadou became seriously injured, he disappeared from the group and Foudouko was left alone to defend his alpha position. A group of rebellious young males took advantage of Mamadou's absence and attacked Foudouko. Outnumbered, Foudouko was forced to abandon his position and leave the group.

Foudouko remained in exile for more than five years. Jill Pruetz, an anthropologist and the director of the Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzee Project (FSCP), has been studying the Fongoli chimps for nearly 20 years and has witnessed many unique behaviors. But she wasn't prepared for what happened to Foudouko.

"It really struck us that Foudouko lived on the outskirts for so long," Pruetz said in a statement from Iowa State University. "Chimps are very social, so this type of isolation would be a huge stress, and it seemed Foudouko wanted to get back into the social group."

During Foudouko's years in isolation, he followed the group at a distance, rarely interacting with any of the group members. His loyal ally, Mamadou, had stayed with Foudouko for several months at the beginning of Foudouko's exile. But Mamadou later rejoined the main group and regained his status as second-in-command to the newest alpha, Mamadou's brother, David.

After a few years had passed, Foudouko made desperate attempts to rejoin the group. He was never successful, as young males continued to aggressively chase Foudouko away. David and Mamadou never participated in the chase and were even spotted alone with Foudouko a couple of times during his exile.

David is the alpha male in the Fongoli savanna group of chimpanzees, and is the main character in the second episode of BBC America's new series, 'Dynasties.' (Image credit: BBC America)

On the morning of June 15, 2013, a research assistant with the FSCP discovered Foudouko's freshly slain body. It appeared that Foudouko had been lethally attacked by other chimpanzees, probably during one of Foudouko's attempts to rejoin the group. The researchers were shocked.

For hours after Foudouko's death, the aggressive chimps continued to beat and cannibalize Foudouko's body, tearing out his throat and ripping chunks from the corpse. One older female in particular, the mother of David and Mamadou, attacked the body the most frequently and consumed more of it than any other chimpanzee, which baffled the researchers.

"It was incredibly hard to watch," Pruetz told National Geographic. "I was really disturbed for about three days [afterward], as if you had a falling-out with a friend."

Mamadou seemed to try to rouse Foudouko but wasn't aggressive toward the body like the other chimps. David got close enough to smell the body, but otherwise left it alone, according to the researchers.

Maintaining leadership

The circumstances surrounding Foudouko's death were extraordinary because chimpanzee murders typically occur only between rival groups and not within the group. The researchers suspected the aggressive chimps may have seen Foudouko as a significant threat to their mating opportunities — males far outnumber females in the Fongoli group.

Two other males served as alpha males before David, but neither held their spot for as long. The second episode of BBC America's "Dynasties" tells David's story as the determined leader of this dynamic group of chimps. Find out if David can hold on to his position as leader and maintain order among the restless young males that want to overthrow him, as they did his predecessors.

Originally published on Live Science.

Kimberly Hickok
Live Science Contributor

Kimberly has a bachelor's degree in marine biology from Texas A&M University, a master's degree in biology from Southeastern Louisiana University and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a former reference editor for Live Science and Space.com. Her work has appeared in Inside Science, News from Science, the San Jose Mercury and others. Her favorite stories include those about animals and obscurities. A Texas native, Kim now lives in a California redwood forest.