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The evolution of shelter: ecology and ethology of chimpanzee nest building



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Stewart, Fiona Anne 


Human beings of all cultures build some form of shelter, and the global distribution of Homo sapiens depends on this basic trait. All great apes (chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, and orangutan) build analogous structures (called nests or beds) at least once a day throughout their adult lives, which suggests that this elementary technology was present before the hominid lines separated. This thesis investigates the variability and function of specifically wild chimpanzee shelters. I compared characteristics of chimpanzee nests, nesting trees, nest shape, and architecture in two savanna-dwelling populations on opposite sides of Africa: Fongoli, Senegal, and Issa, Tanzania. Savanna habitats are the most extreme habitats in which chimpanzees survive today, and may represent a similar environment to that in which early hominins evolved in the Plio-Pleistocene (Chapter 2). Investigating variation in nest-building within and between these two extreme habitats made it possible to tackle hypotheses of the shelter function of nests (Chapter 3). The influence of environment, specifically the role of protection from disease vectors and fluctuating temperatures, was assessed through a novel experiment in which I slept overnight in arboreal chimpanzee nests and on the bare earth (Chapter 4). To assess whether or not nests serve as an anti-predation function, I compared nesting in Issa, where predators are abundant, to Fongoli, where they are absent (Chapter 5). I provided further support for the thermoregulatory function of nests by showing that chimpanzees build more insulating nests in adverse weather conditions (Chapter 6). Nest-building is a learned behaviour, but its ontogeny is little known. I investigated social sources of variation in nest building in Fongoli to examine whether sex and age differences exist in nest building duration, nest position, shape and architecture (Chapter 7). Finally, ecosystem engineering is a consequence of animal construction, from ants to humans. I investigated use-wear traces around nests to assess niche construction of nest- building. I showed that chimpanzees repeatedly re-used these specific nest-spots within trees, which are pre-fabricated for future building through repeated pruning and shaping of these structures (Chapter 8). Nest building in great apes may be the foundation of constructivity in hominids. This thesis describes proximate functions and influences on nest-building variation in wild chimpanzees that help to model the evolution of shelter in hominids.





Chimpanzee, Nest, Sleep, Architecture, Savanna, Shelter


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
This work was supported by the Carnegie Trust for Universities of Scotland (Carnegie Scholarship, Carnegie Research Grant), Corpus Christi College for a Taylor Bursary, Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, International Primatological Society, L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, and the Wenner Gren Foundation.