Mpapa trees grow in the valleys and lower slopes of Gombe National Park in Tanzania. The trees are tall, up to 70 feet high, and typically possess one straight trunk. The fruiting season usually takes place between late March and the end of April. During a good year, mpapa is one of the most important chimpanzee foods.
Like many chimp foods, the mpapa crop size varies from year to year. When it is plentiful, mpapa fruit provides the Gombe chimps with a reliable source of food during the spring rainy season. One spectacular tree near my hut in Gombe’s Kasakela Valley fruits from late March to the end of April.
Mpapa is an incredibly useful tree for researchers because when it fruits, it is a great place to find chimps. Historically, mpapa was one of Fifi’s, Gremlin’s and Patti’s favorite trees.
The leaves of mpapa are palmate (hand-like) and the bark is rough and slightly grooved. It is easy to find the trees when they are fruiting because the chimps tend to break off entire branches in order to eat the fruit. They then drop the branches to the ground when they are finished feeding. The area below these trees is often covered with discarded branches.
The black berries of the mpapa tree are about half the size of a grape and grow in clumps of three to six berries. Mpapa fruit has a tar-like consistency and tastes a bit like stale pumpkin pie. It is not a favorite fruit of mine, but I do eat it when I find that the chimps have dropped a branch of ripe fruit.
Chimpanzees will spend hours in a mpapa tree moving meticulously from berry bunch to berry bunch in search of ripe fruit. The chimps chew a number of berries at once then ball the fruit into a ‘wadge’ in their bottom lips. Presumably, this helps them break down the fruit so that it is more easily digested.
Mpapa fruit is a favorite of young chimps because there is no tough husk, which makes it easy to access. The fruit is also spread throughout the tree so there is seldom heavy competition for a particular piece of fruit.
This week, caregivers at the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo introduced the infant chimpanzee group to the world of art. The fruits of their enrichment activity: unique paintings for JGI-USA’s fall online benefit auction on Chairtybuzz, which is currently underway unitl November 9th.
The staff’s attempt to get each chimp’s footprints on paper was quickly replaced with reckless abandon as the chimps grabbed paint, brushes, bowls, paper and sponges and did what they pleased with them…as usual!
Alex, the newest arrival at the sanctuary, and wonderful Lemba, who is recovering from polio, were the only chimps who would cooperate with footprints. The others simply had a paint party and created all kinds of havoc on paper and on everything and everyone else nearby.
Bill Wallauer, JGI wildlife cameraman and research videographer, discusses lamb’s tail, one of his favorite plants found in Gombe National Park.
Favorite Chimp FoodLatin Name: Antidesma venosum Local Name: Mnziganziga Common Name: Lamb’s Tail, Tassleberry
Lamb’s tail (a name used by Dr. Jane Goodall for its long dangling clusters of berries) is a chimp and Bill favorite. Referred to as tassleberry across Africa, lamb’s tail grows in mixed woodland scrub and wooded grasslands on the drier low ridges at Gombe National Park in Tanzania.
Lamb’s tail is part of a large genus (Antidesma venosum) of 170 species that can be found in Old World tropical forests and woodlands (Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands). It is an important food source for birds and mammals, including people. Antidesma venosum grows throughout equatorial Africa and along the east coast of the continent all the way to South Africa. It is not only an important plant for wildlife, it has many useful traits for people as well. The fruit is more than edible and plant parts are used as building material, medicine to relieve pain and stomach ailments, fuel, and even fish poison. This is just another reason to protect and restore the native plants of Africa.
Lamb’s tail grows as a woody shrub, eventually reaching the size of a small 10- to 12-foot tree. The flowers grow in catkins, which are long-hanging clusters of flowers. Its leaves are evergreen. The leaves are about six inches long, simple and oval, and pointed at the tips. Like the blueberry family, male and female flowers grow on separate trees.
April is the peak season for lamb’s tail. In a good year, the fruit hangs off the vine. It is one of the most important chimp foods of the season. The long clusters of berries are three to 4.5 inches long and half an inch wide. When I eat lamb’s tail, I grab a whole bunch, hold it up high, and strip the berries into my mouth.
The fruit of lamb’s tail is delicious. It has a tart, raspberry or blackberry flavor, and is eaten by Gombe’s chimps and baboons. The fruit hangs down in long clusters of blueberry-sized berries. When unripe, the berries are white and when they ripen, they turn a deep purple. Though I never took the time, I have always longed to make mnziganziga jam (lamb’s tail jam). I have no doubt that it would rival the best blackberry or raspberry jam.
Chimps can spend hours on the grassy woodland ridges of Gombe eating lamb’s tail. I love this season in Gombe because it gets you out of the valley thickets and up onto the open areas, which offer beautiful views of the forest and lake. When I shot the images of Frodo below, he spent more than two hours perched on one small mnziganziga tree. That says a lot about the productivity of this plant. Frodo is a huge eater (a glutton really) and he is the biggest chimp in Gombe’s history. The way chimps use their dexterous lips to pick off the ripe berries is impressive. They can pick through the whole bunch, leaving the white, unripe berries untouched. When a baboon approached Frodo’s tree, he was quick to threaten the baboon away. In a tree this size, chimps are not very tolerant of food competition.
In Gombe, the lamb’s tail crop will last through the end of April and into the first weeks of May. I have been working in Uganda for the past few springs and have missed the April lamb’s tail season. Maybe next year I will be there to make the jam that I have always wanted to try!