Male chimps take an active role in protecting their offspring, new research suggests, by prioritizing time and effort into the task rather than focusing only on future mating options. The study challenges our traditional view of the primates, that of a highly promiscuous species whose males may not even recognize their own offspring.

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A new study by George Washington University anthropologists looked at male chimps to try and answer why human fathers invest so much time and energy in offspring. The team used data acquired at the Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania over a period of more than 25 years. They examined the behavioral patterns of 17 father chimpanzees and 49 mother-infant pairs to see if the males recognized their offspring and if they showed a difference in behavior around them.

The researchers found the males associated with mothers of their offspring early in infancy and interacted with their infants more than expected. The fact that the males spent time with nursing mothers even though this didn’t increase their chances of fathering the next infant supports the paternal effort hypothesis, according to which males associate more with mothers in order to protect their offspring, not for sexual gain.

“As anthropologists, we want to understand what patterns could have existed early in human evolution that help explain how human behavior evolved,” said Carson Murray, assistant professor of anthropology at the GWU and lead author of the paper.

“This research suggests that males may sometimes prioritize relationships with their offspring rather than with potential mates. For a species without pair-bonds where it was assumed fathers didn’t know which infants were their own, this is an important finding.”

The researchers also found that the males would spend time grooming and caring for their offspring. Chimpanzees are one of the closes living relatives modern humans have. Discovering that they not only have paternal recognition, but also take an interest in raising and caring for their offspring rather than only focusing on future mating opportunities, offers insight into how early human fathers behaved.

“Our findings are not only further evidence that chimpanzee fathers recognize their offspring in a promiscuous species, but also that fathers behave differently around their offspring,” said Margaret Stanton, postdoctoral scientist at GW’s Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology and co-author of the paper.

But, while the paper offers some valuable insight, it cannot answer the overall question of how human paternal behavior evolved by itself.

The full paper “Chimpanzee fathers bias their behaviour towards their offspring” has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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