What happened to Patsy?

The story goes that Patsy had her finger bitten off by her mother for misbehavior, but how much truth is there in that statement and is this a common behavior for apes? Upon our education director’s request, I looked deep into the world of simian parenthood and childhood, a topic that has seen a lot of revisions in the past decade.

Welcome back to Osteology in Action! January Edition.

Today you get to meet my teaching assistant, Patsy. Patsy is a 54-year-old female chimpanzee. She helps students with many subjects such as: apes vs. monkeys, bipedal vs. quadrupedal, sexual dimorphism, and signs of periodontal disease and arthritis. However, there is an often overlooked detail of Patsy that can teach us a lot about chimpanzees. On her right hand, Patsy is missing a good portion of her “ring” finger. 

The story goes that Patsy had her finger bitten off by her mother for misbehavior, but how much truth is there in that statement and is this a common behavior for apes? Upon our education director’s request, I looked deep into the world of simian parenthood and childhood, a topic that has seen a lot of revisions in the past decade. 

Chimpanzees were believed to be intrinsically good mothers until recently, and for good reason. Infant chimpanzees nurse until 5 years of age and the care doesn’t end there. Chimpanzee mothers care for their offspring up into adulthood, with adult males returning to home to mom to, metaphorically, lick their wounds when injured or embarrassed. Female children stay with their mother longer, learning parenting techniques by observation and practicing them on younger siblings. Even after childhood, female chimps who lose their mother and lack other close female relationships tend to give birth later. Male chimps who lose their mother before full maturity tend to live shorter lives. 

However, chimps in captivity abandon their young 20% of the time. This may be due to several factors. Studies have shown that chimp mothers with a greater amount of stress tend to be more aggressive with their children and punish them more harshly for minor infractions. Chimpanzees in captivity are known to engage in a variety of stress and boredom based negative behaviors including increased aggression and self-mutilation. Additionally, some researchers hypothesize that some female chimpanzees simply aren’t meant to be mothers due to a natural lack of patience or tendency to be aggressive. Captive great apes are very susceptible to captivity-induced stress and so that there appears to be a higher rate of infant abandonment seems logical.  

However, as with all things, the problem is more far reaching. Chimpanzees that are reared by humans tend to be more aggressive as well. This has to do with the way that chimpanzee society works and how mother’s teach appropriate chimp manners. Chimps are the most social of the great apes and as such have a distinct understanding of good and bad manners as well as fair and unfair treatment. A study conducted at Leipzig zoo showed that chimpanzees disapprove of undeserved punishment and actively attempt to not view the punishment by turning their backs. However, they will actively attempt to witness deserved punishment, going so far as to work together to get an opportunity to watch the punishment. 

Chimp punishment has a clear escalation. Whoops from the mother to the child indicate that the behavior is inappropriate. If the behavior continues or crosses an important boundary that, as adults, could result in death, the mother will then escalate to scratching, then biting and eventually will bite off a finger to make the lesson stick. This may seem horrific, but chimpanzees have been known to kill each other for infractions like food stealing, perceived wrongs, or even jealousy. This behavior is typically only undertaken in the direst of situations. Chimps reared by humans can’t receive the same indications of misbehavior. While a human could scratch or bite a chimp for misbehavior, it would be highly inappropriate and we are unable to hurt them by doing so. This is why it’s so important that abandoned chimps be reared by a surrogate chimp as quickly as possible. 

While Patsy’s finger may not have been removed by her mother, it is a distinct possibility. And despite this grizzly indicator of injury, Patsy doesn’t have any other indicators of trauma. This means that if the bite was a punishment, it was certainly one that stuck.

Patsy is a 54-year-old female chimpanzee. She helps students with many subjects such as: apes vs. monkeys, bipedal vs. quadrupedal, sexual dimorphism, and signs of periodontal disease and arthritis.

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