Cooperation and competition in chimpanzees: Current understanding and future challenges


  • John C. Mitani

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    • John C. Mitani is the James N. Spuhler Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. During the past 15 years, he has been engaged in a long-term study of the behavior of chimpanzees living in an unusually large community at Ngogo, Kibale National Park, Uganda. His research there focuses on male chimpanzee social behavior and cooperation. Over the past 30 years, he has conducted field work on all five of the living apes, including gibbons and orangutans in Indonesia, gorillas in Rwanda, bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and chimpanzees in Tanzania and Uganda.


Two goals in the study of evolutionary anthropology are to determine the factors that make humans unique and to reconstruct the evolution of our behavior. As humans' closest living relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) have always been of special interest in this regard. Because of their close evolutionary relationship to us, these animals provide the requisite comparative data to evaluate claims made about human uniqueness. In addition, knowledge of the differences among chimpanzees, bonobos, and us furnishes important insights into the changes that occurred during human evolution. Given these circumstances, studies of chimpanzees and bonobos remain high priorities for research. The volatile political situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to bonobos, has made long-term study of their behavior difficult, if not impossible. In contrast, field research on chimpanzees, initiated by Jane Goodall1 and Toshisada Nishida2 nearly 50 years ago, continues to grow and thrive. While past and ongoing field work has added enormously to our understanding of the behavior of chimpanzees,3–8 gaps in knowledge persist. In this paper, I summarize some of these gaps, giving special emphasis to male cooperation and female competition.