New Article by Freymann, E., Badihi, G., Hobaiter, C., Huffman, M. A., Muhumuza, G., Orbell, S., Sempebwa, D., Yikii, E. R., Zuberbühler, K., & Carvalho, S., in International Journal of Primatology.

The ingestion of bark has been observed across the animal kingdom and is well documented in free-ranging chimpanzees. Thus far, the best-supported hypothesis for the adaptive function of this behavior is the fallback food hypothesis, which asserts that chimpanzees consume bark and cambium when preferred foods are scarce. However, alternative explanations exist, including the essential nutrient and mineral hypothesis, the self-medication hypothesis, and the stressed-tree hypothesis. We tested whether the fallback food hypothesis can explain bark-feeding across two communities of Eastern chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in the Budongo Forest, Uganda. We used 13 years of the site’s long-term behavioral data, 5 years of food availability data, and 8 months of direct and indirect observations. We also conducted eight 400-m line transects to collect data on the distribution of tree species across community home ranges. We employed several analyses, including Pearson correlation tests, qualitative comparisons of descriptive data and heat maps, and interpretation of behavioral anecdotes. We found varying patterns of bark-feeding seasonality across tree species, with bark-feeding on several species showing no correlation with food scarcity. We also identified differences in the amounts of bark targeted between tree species and report anecdotal evidence of chimpanzees prioritizing bark over high-value foods. Lastly, we found that bark-feeding on certain species disproportionally occurs far from community core areas, despite relative abundance of these species within the home range. As a result, we argue that the fallback food hypothesis cannot explain bark-feeding across all tree species. Instead, we present supporting evidence for several alternative hypotheses, including self-medication, thereby challenging the widely accepted function of this behavior.

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