The Social Primate

by: Michael Bliss, Primate Rescue Center Intern

In general, primates are social animals. There are many benefits for being a part of a social system, one being protection. Of course, there are some exceptions to this general principle, for instance, the male orangutan, perhaps for the purpose of restraining the number of members competing for the same recourses, but this is not a common theme among the primate order.

Social Systems

Since most primates are social animals, possessing a structured social system is one of the numerous characteristics that distinguishes this order. Within this graded structure, there are general positions that might be assumed, such as the leader of the group, also known as the alpha. Depending on the species, this might be a male or female, such as the alpha male in chimpanzee societies. In some species, this might consist of both a male and female pairing, such as the case in gibbon societies. The alpha generally orders the arrangements of the group and has access to the greatest selections of nutrition and mates. Males and females are integrated into the social system together, as noticed through the shared interactions among members of a group, although each gender has a separate grading system that communicates status among members of that gender. Where alpha males uphold influence throughout the entire chimpanzee troop, alpha females possess a higher status among the other female members. Alpha females generally are of a greater standing than subordinate males, as is the case at the Primate Rescue Center. Martina, the alpha female, ranks second only to Donald, the alpha male. Martina can be seen stealing food from the second ranking male, Ike, going so far as to snag it straight from his mouth. Since chimpanzees are highly food motivated, as are the preponderance of other primate species, this food displacing action clearly establishes her superior position over the second ranking male.




Holding and maintaining the status of alpha is not merely an accomplishment of strength and robustness, but also one of persuasion and charisma. Alphas must also guarantee the backing and support of others, in particular the female members. Each action a primate performs, whether foraging for food or grooming others, is a signal of the social status of that group member. Just through the simple action of eye contact, a subordinate member is at risk of offending someone of a higher position. Primate politics are astoundingly structured and intricate, and offspring are hurled into these social undercurrents through the playing and games they so commonly enjoy. Through the simple and harmless acts of playing with other adolescent members, young primates are shown the strengths and faults of those soon to become the future generation, instinctively forging the path for the impending highborn and subordinate members of society. Status is often transferred from the mother or father to the offspring, therefore if the mother is of a high status, so too is the offspring (although this might change in the future, depending on the developmental stages of the offspring, both regarding physical and mental animation). Though these strong ancestral relationships are passed from generation to generation, bringing position and status to the offspring of future generations, the social system is constantly changing, as groups are displaced and altered through means such as changing relationships and increasing knowledge. Since subordinate members track those of higher status, if an alpha male rises to influence and brings toolmaking knowledge, such as the ability to fish for termites and gather liquids through leaf sponges, the entire dynamic of the group might change, allowing for intelligent subordinate members to rise through the social system.

Maintaining Relationships

As it might appear rather apparent throughout social societies, relationships among members must be enforced and maintained through various means. The most famous of these comportments is grooming, in particular allogrooming. This is the action of social grooming. Among foraging, locomoting, reproducing, and sleeping, grooming completes this group of indispensable functions upheld throughout primate societies. Where grooming oneself operates with a hygienic purpose, cleansing debris and parasites from the pelage, social grooming is performed primarily to enforce and maintain relations among the group. After a conflict or dispute, for instance, grooming is often implemented for the purposes of resolution and reconciliation. This is the language articulated throughout primate societies for the expression – “I am sorry, please forgive me.” Mothers can be seen grooming children. Friends finding solace in grooming one another. Subordinate males seeking refuge through grooming the alpha. Social grooming is an adaptable action that can communicate an assortment of messages. These messages change as the situation alters and shifts. Grooming is pleasurable for both the groomer and the member being groomed. Lip smacking, an amiable sign, is often engaged by the groomer. The partner being groomed seems to oftentimes be in a state of absolute pleasure, one of immense comfort and relaxation. His or her eyes might be seen positioned in the back of their sockets, in sort of a suspended pleasurable eye roll, and it appears as though the body is so relaxed, the flesh might just tumble right off the bones.

Alongside of grooming, gestures of reassurance, oftentimes through physical contact, perform a significant role in abating conflict and hastening its resolution. During, or after a conflict, members of the group often touch the concerned member, a sign of support. The concerned member might also approach others, touching them in a similar fashion. If the member offering reassurance is high ranking, perhaps an alpha, the concerned member often is appeased for the time being. Although, until the primate that started the conflict presents reassurance or an apologetic embrace or groom, the situation must persist, often resulting in a large fight as the concerned member demands an apology. At the Primate Rescue Center, if a conflict arises in the group of chimps, the upset member presents this feeling through a distressing sound and an open mouth gesture, oftentimes approaching others for comfort and security. For the most part, the upset member is the last ranking male, Rodney. Ike, the second ranking male, has been making a charge for the alpha position, and oftentimes performs intimidating actions, known as displays, where he can become relatively aggressive. These spectacles are performed to establish a strong case for the alpha position, asserting strength and governance among the other males. Through selecting the smaller male, Ike accomplishes his intentions to appear strong and formidable. Rodney, not liking these displaying actions, articulates his feelings through gestures and noises, representing to others his upset state. Some members might present reassurance through physical contact to appease the situation and offer support. Until Ike apologizes, Rodney must continue to make noises, these becoming louder as time goes on. After some more time has passed, Rodney might make a charge at Ike, long passed the stage of requesting an apology. Perhaps seeing submission as a sign of feebleness, or perhaps possessing a considerable and steadfast ego, Ike oftentimes does not present the apology until Rodney has chased him down. Soon after the engagement these two can be found grooming and playing, as after all, they are almost inseparable. Chimps are extremely emotional beings, and as straight shooters, in regard to their feelings, shifts from happiness to anger, for instance, can arise from (seemingly) the slightest of offenses and insults.


Alongside grooming and reassurance, another great method employed by social groups to enforce and maintain relationships is cooperation and teamwork. Being a part of a group is more than any single member, it is about being a part of a team. Each member relies upon the others for protection and support, this being some of the reasons for the success of primate species throughout the planet. Specific alarm calls, for instance, informs the entire group of the presence of ground or ariel predators, meaning those that are foraging or sleeping might escape the potential danger. Group cohesion is paramount for primate persistence. Maintaining this structured system, with strong group relations, requires cooperation and teamwork. As grooming plays an integral part in forging relationships among single members, so are the functions of undertakings such as hunting, for instance, in chimpanzee societies, helping to strengthen and forge relationships throughout the entire group. Tracking and catching small and agile monkeys, such as the Red Colobus (Piliocolobus tephrosceles), being the most targeting prey animal for chimps, requires great cooperation among the entire group. Once targeted, group members silently assemble into positions depending on the strengths of each, being cautious not to notify the colobus of their locations. They strategically place members around the monkeys, entrapping them from each angle. The members in the head of the group peruse the monkeys as if they are the only ones partaking in the hunt. The moneys, unsuspectingly caught off guard, then attempt to flee, only to be caught by those secretly lurking in the trees behind. These efforts secure meat for the troop, although this is arguably not the sole, nor principal intention of the hunt. Instead, it is thought, to strengthen the bonds of the group, maintaining and ensuring a unified front for the continued preservation of the species.   

Forging Cultures

Being one of the most complicated and intelligent forms of life on the planet, some primate species form cultures through social learning. Because primates are capable of learning from others, especially adolescents from their mothers through simple strategies such as imitation, it is not surprising that some primate groups perform, and subsequently pass on, distinguishing actions to future generations – Thus forging cultures. Primates have long maturation periods, meaning that it takes a longer time to mature into an adult. In the case of chimps, this maturation period can be as long as fifteen years. Because of this rather long maturation period, and the need for protection and support from others during this time, the mother offspring relationship is one of the strongest form of bonds throughout the animal kingdom. Many animals acquire innate ecological knowledge through their genetic material, such as the many species that mature without the presence of a mother, thus retaining a sense of their place in nature – What to eat, where to sleep – Things of this nature are inherently recognized, as compared to gathered and acquired. In the case of primates, because of the longer developmental period, mothers play a significant role in teaching offspring the basic principles for subsistence. They experience everything the mother experiences, elucidating the sorts of foods that are safe to consume, the kinds of trees to sleep on, and the manners of social comportments to perform. They learn almost everything from their mothers. This relationship is essential, and it is also the suspected origins of culture throughout primate societies. If a chimp mother teaches her offspring termite fishing, this child will perform this action throughout its life, teaching it to its offspring. This is the cultural pattern that outlines and distinguishes many primate species throughout the order.

A sample from the countless formations of culture seen throughout the primate order can be best articulated through a group of Japanese Macaques (Macaca fuscata) that is at the center of primate research. The researchers on site present the macaques with an offering of sweet potatoes, although before consuming these scrumptious tubers, each member rushes into the ocean to submerge them in the salty solution. Since the first Japanese Macaque presented this immersion action back in the ‘50s, this group has been seen performing it ever since. Another example of social learning, and the formation of culture, appears in a great ape species, the second most accomplished animal at tool using and making, the chimpanzee (humans being the first). Troops operate in a fission (split up) and fusion (come together) social mode, as smaller subgroups of the whole split up to search for food and other resources, as this system grants each subgroup a larger share of the total, since competition for resources is reduced. Depending on the troop, there are unique cultural adaptations that help to distinguish its members. For instance, troops from group one might be seen opening nuts through the use of large branches used as hammers. Group two, on the other hand, might be observed opening nuts through the use of large rocks, also used as hammers. The function of the objects is the same, although the material is not. This is a form of culture that helps distinguish troops from one another. Based upon the success of these cultures, in regard to group subsistence, this culture might be passed from generation to generation for hundreds of years, or until another culture takes its place. Culture, once thought of as a human characteristic, something that has set the human species apart from other animals, has been contested time and time again from other members throughout the primate order. As it seems, culture no longer can assert such a restricted definition.

Author Spotlight

My name is Michael Bliss. During the Summer of ’21, I took part in a three month internship at the Primate Rescue Center. Being fortunate enough to stay on property for the duration of the internship, this presented a unique opportunity to reside alongside of the primates that call this sanctuary home. Windows in the apartment, connecting to the chimpplayroom (where they receive two forage meals a day of fruits, vegetables, and lettuces), and sleeping tunnels, (where they build their nests to sleep from straw and paper materials), offered a figurative “window” into the fascinating life and culture of chimpanzees. I learned more than I thought possible throughout this internship, and through this knowledge, I hope to share and articulate the entrancing world of primates and the stories they have to tell us.