An alpha male chimpanzee, named Foudouko by researchers, was found dead on the western coast of Africa. The chimp was reportedly beaten with rocks and sticks and then eaten by his own tribe.
According to New Scientist, this savage beating and subsequent cannibalism may actually provide insight into male coalition building among chimps. Usually, chimps live in tribes with more adult females than males. Very rarely, the dynamic is reversed, with more males than females. These so-called "male coalitions" sometimes can lead to disaster, with male members of the community turning on the alpha.
"Why do these coalitions sometimes succeed, but not very often? It's at the heart of this tension between conflict and cooperation, which is central to the lives of chimpanzees and even to our own," said Michael Wilson, a researcher of chimpanzee intergroup behavior at the University of Michigan.
According to National Geographic, the bond between group-mates is extremely strong, and chimps are often seen clasping hands or hugging each other for reassurance. Usually, a community is extremely docile toward its own members and only shows extreme violence to its neighbors.
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Wilson believes that chimps can often turn against each other when there is competition for a mate, according to New Scientist. That could be why groups with majority males -- like Foudouko's -- rarely thrive.
"When you reverse that and have almost two males per every female -- that really intensifies the competition for reproduction. That seems to be a key factor here," he says.
However, another factor could have been Foudouko's own personality. Researchers studying the community called the alpha "somewhat of a tyrant."
Foudouko was initially ostracized by his own community in 2007, and lived on the fringes for five years before being welcomed back into the group. Once back within the group, he was demoted from alpha to beta status.
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One morning, a group of researchers heard loud screams and hoots coming from the chimp's sleep nest. When they ran over, they found Foudouko bleeding profusely. The former alpha had a large gash in his back, a ripped anus and cracked ribs. Members from his tribe continued to abuse the body long after Foudouko died, throwing rocks at the carcass or poking it with sticks.
"Do chimpanzees understand death? It’s not clear if they do,” says Wilson. "It seems unlikely that they know about using pulse or breath to make sure something's dead, so we do see them beating on individuals they've killed after they've expired. But the cannibalization was unusual."