Elusive African Apes: Giant Chimps or New Species?

John Roach
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 apes are most likely a group of giant chimpanzees that display gorilla-like behavior. A far more remote possibility is that they represent a new subspecies of great ape. Researchers plan to return to the region later this month to collect more clues to help resolve the mystery.

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.

Intrigued by the subspecies, Colin Groves, now an anthropologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, examined the skulls in 1970 and determined that they were indistinguishable from western gorillas, one of the two known species of gorilla. No further specimens of this gorilla from Bili have since been found.

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.

Scientific analysis of this data is still being conducted. Ammann awaits the results before making an official announcement about the finds. Meanwhile, he continues to recruit scientists to study the case.

Shelly Williams, an independent primate behavior specialist in Atlanta, Georgia, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology, spent two months in the northern Democratic Republic of Congo last year trying to determine the identity of these apes. She said "at the very least, we have either a new culture of chimps that are unusually large or hybrids with unusual behaviors."

Williams and Groves will meet Ammann in Kenya this month before traveling to the Congo to conduct further studies on the mysterious apes.

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.

Continued on Next Page >>


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