The ‘F’ Family
The “F” family is one of the most well-known and well-loved families of the Gombe Stream Research Centre. Old Flo, the matriarch of the family, made possible some of Jane Goodall’s early observations of infant development and family relations. Flo and her daughter Fifi have created a large, close-knit, and high-ranking family that has given Jane and other researchers a huge amount of data. We owe a great debt of thanks to this family.
Flo was one of the first females to follow David Greybeard to Jane’s camp in 1961. When she came into estrus in 1963 she was extraordinarily sexually attractive to the many males who then began to follow her into camp. Most had never ventured into this strange and seemingly frightening place. Flo’s high rank and social assertiveness influenced her offspring as they developed. Her son, Figan, with the support of his brother Faben, became top-ranking male for six years (1973-1979) and her daughter Fifi went on to become the top-ranking female.
The sad story of Flint
Flo gave birth to at least five offspring: Faben, Figan, Fifi, Flint, and Flame. She was a wonderful, supportive, affectionate and playful mother to the first three. However, by the time Flo gave birth to Flint she had become too tired to cope with the aggressive demands and tantrums of Flint, who wanted to ride on her back and sleep with her even after the birth of his new sister. Flo had still not weaned Flint when Flame died at the age of six months, and had even given up trying to push Flint to become more independent. Consequently, Flint became abnormally dependent on his mother. When Flo died in 1972, Flint was unable to cope without her. He stopped eating and interacting with others and showed signs of clinical depression. Soon afterwards, his immune system became too weak to keep him alive. He died at the age of eight and a half, within one month of losing his mother Flo.
The deaths of Flo and Flint were sad events in the history of Gombe. Flo’s mothering techniques and social behavior taught Jane a great deal. Flint was the first wild chimp infant whose development Jane and the researchers were able to study in detail. Flo, that wonderful mother, with her great love of and zest for life and her indomitable spirit was given the rare of honor of an obituary in Britain’s prestigious newspaper, The Sunday Times.
Frodo’s childhood was very different to Freud’s. Fifi’s first-born had spent hours — sometimes days — alone with his mother. Even though, like Flo, Fifi is a sociable female, she often spends time away from other adults. By the time Frodo was born Freud had been weaned, and could travel on his own four limbs and make his small nest at night. Nevertheless, he was still emotionally dependent on Fifi. Freud traveled with his mother and her new son Frodo for three years after Frodo’s birth. Consequently, Frodo had an ever-present playmate and role model, baby-sitter and protector.
Frodo spent hours watching his older brother, often attempting to imitate his behavior. Frodo soon became something of a bully and one of Gombe’s few accurate stone-throwers! He began to move ahead of other chimps and roll huge rocks down toward them. The rocks would then ricochet from one tree to another causing the chimps (and sometimes Jane) to scramble out of the way. Frodo became notorious when he leapt at and pummeled Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson when the artist visited Gombe.
Battles for alpha position
For many months Freud and Frodo traveled together. However, their relationship soon became tense when it became apparent they would be competing for the alpha male position. By the time Frodo reached his late teens he was challenging his brother. When Frodo was 20 years old, he weighed some 120 pounds — the heaviest chimp known at Gombe. In 1997 the battle ended as Freud became sick with mange and Frodo was able to overthrow him.
Whilst Frodo was in power he ruled the colony with brute force. However in December 2002, when he himself grew ill, he became subject to attack and was forced to hide from the community. Researchers wondered if he would survive the disease that had painfully reduced his once magnificent form. By early 2004, Frodo appeared to be on the mend! He was seen joining big groups and even hunting, killing a colobus.
After much speculation about which chimpanzee would emerge as the new alpha male, Sheldon — known as a loner with a brave streak — briefly established himself as alpha until Kris took over in 2005.
Fifi’s oldest son, Freud, benefited from the strength and position of his powerful family. As he grew up he was supported not only by his mother, who was rising in rank at that time, but also her elder brother Figan, who was alpha male during Freud’s impressionable juvenile years.
When he was seven years old, Freud began the long task of intimidating the females of the community. As he dared to challenge the higher-ranking females, they turned on him. But Fifi always rushed to her son’s rescue — and together they dominated Freud’s adversaries. Without doubt, this built up Freud’s self-confidence. Freud became alpha male at the age of 22 in February 1993. He was a popular laid-back alpha until the fall of 1997, when he became weakened by sarcoptic mange and his brother Frodo took over.
Fifi was the last surviving chimpanzee from Dr. Goodall’s early days as a researcher. Jane watched her grow from a lively and curious 2-year-old to a high ranking female and one of Gombe’s most succesful mothers. Thanks to National Geographic documentaries, Fifi became even better known around the world than her mother, Flo.
Like Flo, Fifi was an excellent mother, as well as a high-ranking and assertive member of her community. She had a relaxed relationship with the adult males and was just as sexually popular as her mother before her. Indeed, when Fifi was a 10-year-old adolescent she was so preoccupied with the new experience of sex that Jane thought she was something of a nymphomaniac!
Fifi gave birth to nine offspring — a Gombe record. Her first infant, born in 1971, was, quite naturally, named Freud! Five years later, son Frodo was born. Five years after that, she bore daughter Fanni, and four years later came daughter Flossi. Four and a half years after Flossi was born, Fifi gave birth to Faustino, and only three and a half years later she gave birth to Ferdinand. As a result of unusually early (and very harsh) weaning, Faustino remained small and weak for many years. Ferdinand was four years old when Fred was born.
Disaster struck for the first time in Fifi’s life as a mother in 1998. Fifi became very ill during a terrible epidemic of sarcoptic mange. She lost all of her hair, and sadly little Fred became sick and died. As soon as Fifi recovered and started growing her hair back, she came into estrus and immediately conceived. Daughter Flirt was born in July 1998. Fifi’s latest offspring — her ninth — is daughter Furaha, born October 2002.
Fifi was also a grandmother. Fanni lost her her first son, Fax, but later gave birth to two sons, Fudge and then Fundi. Flossi, to our surprise, after visiting the males of the Mitumba community in the north several times during estrus, decided to make her home with the northerners. She gave birth to her first infant, Forest, in 1997 and her second son, Fansi, in 2001. Flossi and Forest are important members of their new community.
Sadly, Fifi disappeared in the Fall of 2004 and is now presumed dead
Researchers at JGI’s Gombe Stream Research Centre in Tanzania have not seen Fifi or Furaha since late August of that year. Initially, Fifi’s absence seemed unremarkable, says Michael Wilson, co-director of research at the Centre. She had shifted her range to remote northern valleys at Gombe, and so was spotted infrequently. But worries mounted in mid-September when a graduate student saw a large group of northern mothers traveling without Fifi. Then, on 17 September, researchers saw Fifi’s 6-year-old daughter Flirt traveling without her mother — surprising behavior for such a young female. The field staff and park rangers searched intensively for Fifi throughout October but could find no sign of her.
“We don’t know whether Fifi is still alive, or what happened to her if she is no longer living. As of yesterday, Flirt was still traveling without her mother,” said Wilson on Nov. 12.
“It is deeply disturbing that Fifi has been missing for so long, and mortifying to think that she may be gone forever,” he said. “We are still hopeful that Fifi may be alive, hidden in a remote northern valley, but as time continues to pass without any sign of her, the chances of her survival seem slim.”