Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Bili Apes and Others

Dear Constant Readers,

I originally started writing a sequel post of sorts to my concept review of bigfoot classification (here), but I found that since the authors only presented one bold viewpoint I'd have to do an incredible amount of research in order to even discuss it. The first three types presented an excellent summary of the stupendously flawed works produced anyways. Since Coleman and Huyghe's book was apparently written more for entertainment value than information, that got me starting to think about the merits of "Classical" Cryptozoology vs. the unrecognized "Cryptozoology" of people like van Roosmalen. I believe that after this one, there will be a post on that subject to wrap up my current tendency to discuss Cryptozoological matters. After that, who knows what will become of my blog for the summer. With now-limited Internet access and more attention on my fiction project things could get very irregular. Time...I need many more hours in the day than what I have!

Oh yeah, this post. Well, when scratching my head over the Field Guide, I couldn't help but notice that it sure did a very incomplete job at listing all the mystery primates. Sure they included a 15 foot tall cape-wearing anthropophage and an 8 foot tall lobster-digited bipedal floppy-eared ape...which is entertaining I will admit, but given that both are known from single reports* they're pretty worthless. There was not a peep about the Bili ape, Koola-Kamba, or Ufiti, all of which appear to have a much stronger basis in reality! Or maybe that was why they weren't included...

*The Field Guide claims additional reports for giant lobster-ape, but of course none have the extremely bizarre features.

While not known at the time, the Bili ape is without a doubt a very real creature. In older articles this wasn't necessarily very apparent. The apes allegedly bore a strong resemblance to those from Congo: They were gorilla-like, flat faced and round headed, 6 feet tall when upright, fearsome "lion killers" with no predators, and howled (or hooted) at the moon. This isn't the most convincing sounding creature in the world, and it turns out the situation was more complicated than the press led on In this letter from Karl Ammann and Hans Wasmoeth, they reveal that Dr. Shelly Williams (who gave the press release) gave out some fraudulent and fantastic information about the apes and was hardly involved in the project at all. While there unfortunately had to be some drama to go along with the Bili ape, the actual research on it is quite fascinating.

Before I get too far into the description, I should point out that while there have been claims of the Bili apes being a new species/subspecies or even chimpanzee/gorilla hybrids, they are really no such thing. According to genetic tests the Bili apes are from the known chimpanzee subspecies Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii. While a new species would have been pretty cool, I still think that the Bili ape is exciting and has large implications for other "mystery apes" in Africa.

I should also point out that the Bili apes are currently the 4-year PhD project of one Thurston Cleveland Hicks...who began in mid-2004. While nothing has been published yet to the best of my knowledge in a journal, some information has been put up at Karl Ammann's website. This is where my description derives from, and when and if there is an official publication I'll most certainly post on it.

Despite being genetically identical to chimpanzees, in some ways the Bili apes behave more like gorillas. They build tree-nests considerably lower than average for chimpanzees, but also occasionally nest on the ground. This is most remarkable given that the region is a savannah/forest mosaic that not only has leopards, but lions and hyenas as well! Hicks et al could find no evidence of the males being especially fearsome at all, and were in fact the most skittish around humans. The size of the chimpanzees appears to be normal for the most part, but at least one old female named Caroline is big enough to be confused for a male. The males are rarely seen, so it cannot be ruled out that they reach large sizes. Casts of footprints collected measured between 18 and 28 cm (7.2" to 11"), but previously collected tracks by Ammann and others got much larger. If there were indeed 14 inch (35 cm) tracks, this would apparently make them the largest known ape tracks. I'll have to look up records of outsized gorillas to be certain that it would be the largest. Additionally some very large dung samples were found with hostra rings previously known only from gorillas. Studies in the diet are still quite preliminary, but it is possible that this society has specialized tree dwelling and ground dwelling members. While observations only show the Bili apes eating plants and insects, trackers say that they have been known to have devised methods for gathering honey from bee's nests as well as capturing turtles and fish.

So what is the implication of all this? Are the male Bili apes converging to some degree with male gorillas. If the males are larger and herbivorous and the females are smaller and frugivores, could this provide a glimpse into how sexual dimorphism is evolved? This is all very exciting work, and I am eager to hear whatever exciting developments there are in this case.


Of course, there are implications for Cryptozoology as well. It shows that despite something initially appearing to be a new species, it could end up being more "mundane" but still very interesting.

The Bili ape wasn't just discovered by Ammann et al, there is a history to go along with it. Ammann documents that there were initially reports of a Gorilla gorilla uellensis which some argued was either a new population or a misplaced Gorilla skull. Ammann went to the region and collected some skulls which turned out to be unusual chimpanzee skulls with sagittal and occipital crests normally found in gorillas. Say, perhaps a sagittal crest isn't the most diagnostic feature (Mr. Coleman and Mr. Huyghe).

Then there is the Koolakamba.

The best information I can find comes from an article from the Primate Info Net by Dr. Elaine Struthers. The early worker DuChaillu described a fourth type of ape from the Gabon/Cameroon area (Bili is in Kenya) which he said was called Koolakamba (Koolokamba, Kulu-Kamba, et cetera) by natives. It had a broader and flatter face than usual, a large cranial capacity, a broad pelvis, big ears, high zygomatic ridges and other interesting features. It has been suggested that this represents individual variation rather than a true "type". He did live in the mid 1800's after all. Another later worker (in the 1960's) named Osmand Hill described another "Koolakamba" with a very prognathous face and small gorilla-like ears which he also considered a different "type". At a foundation where Struthers worker, there were also some distinctive looking chimpanzees that met the description, including one with an inclination towards bipedalism.

So what is to be made by this? DuChaillu and Hill do not appear to be describing the same animal, so now there are at least two distinctive "types" of Koolakamba. In a parallel with the Bili ape case these animals are occasionally called chimpanzee/gorilla hybrids, although given the results for the Bili apes I doubt this very much. Since when do relatively distant hybrids create viable populations anyways? While this is certainly not the same phenomenon as the Bili apes, perhaps there are quite a few more parallels. DuChaillu's description seems similar to Williams' early and apparently fraudulent claims, which leaves me confused. Did she know about the Koolakamba and apply its description or (and this is a very remote chance) are there actually some male Bili apes like that? Is this convergent evolution between two different subspecies (Koolakamba is apparently P. t. troglodytes) into a gorilla-like niche? I haven't been able to access any of the journals, but I doubt that would help clear up this matter very much. There is already somebody getting a PhD off of the Bili apes, perhaps somebody could give another look at these other anomalous apes...assuming they haven't been extincted.

And while I could have ended there, here comes Cryptozoology...

Well, not too much. I believe Ivan Sanderson covered the stories of Charles Cordier...but since I do not have that book I'll have to use Mark Hall's "Yeti, Bigfoot, & True Giants" book as a source. There goes any attempt at credibility. The story goes that Cordier collected folklore from the Eastern Belgian Congo about a bipedal, herbivorous, man-size (or bigger) ape which curiously has the same taste for honey as the Bili ape. Assuming the bipedal trait was exaggerated, this vaguely sounds like it could be another ape along the lines of the Bili ape/Koolakamba. An illustration of a footprint collected by Cordier and illustrated in Sanderson and Hall's respective books looks curiously similar to a Bili ape footprint in that it seems long and narrow with a rather far set-back thumb. The blond lady holding the footprint is none other than Shelly Williams by the way. Curiouser and curiouser. Here is the best picture I could find of a human/ape foot comparison at the time, sorry. You get the idea though.

And in another book, Coleman and Jerome Clarke's Cryptozoology A to Z they make a curious entry about Ufiti, a female chimpanzee found in Malawi, about 500 miles away from the next nearest colony. She was apparently close to 6 feet tall and had a silver back, but (if the photograph in the book is indeed of her) clearly appears to be a chimpanzee. Was there a mix-up as to where she was actually discovered? Is this yet another population along the Bili ape/Koolakamba line?

Since there is nothing but a tantalizing preliminary picture on so many of these subjects, it is hard to make any sort of conclusion. If these accounts are to be taken seriously, then the picture of apes in Africa is much more muddled than is commonly portrayed. How many instances of chimpanzees establishing gorilla-like niches have there been? Are these and other reports of African "mystery apes" all due to chimpanzee variation of some sort? With increasing human encroachment, if there were some additional bizarre chimpanzee populations, they could all be gone by now. And what a shame that would be. That seems to be the sad truth about things of this matter; there is a tantalizing hint of something quite interesting and it never becomes anything more than that. It doesn't have to be that way though.

- Cameron

[Addendum 7/15/07: This new article updates Hicks' work. He observed some of the chimpanzees eating a leopard carcass, which is remarkable behavior indeed. There's no proof they ate the animal, but perhaps this is the basis towards the "lion killing" attribute. Hicks hypothesizes that perhaps they occasionally prey on the predators in order not to become prey themselves in their dangerous habitat. He also mentioned a "smashing culture" where blunt tools were used to smash snail and turtle shells, fruits, and termite mounds. They also use "fishing rods" for termite mounds up to 2.5 meters long. The gender wasn't mentioned, but in more rural areas the chimpanzees were not skittish but unafraid of people.

And this is the most remarkable of all: One professor Groves proposes that this is in fact a distinct subspecies after all, bringing the total count up to five. Additionally, the culture is very widespread over an area of 7000 square kilometers (~2700 square miles, Delaware-sized) hinting at a rather large population.]


Caitilng said...

Well I'm glad that you are interesting enough in this topic to write about it, I can't say that all of us are so enthused.

I would just laugh at the authors of this book, but you, you have to use evidence to prove them wrong, and I hope that they read this,

David Noonan said...

Here's a pic I threw together comparing the largest known molluscs. The two squid and the d00d are borrowed from this site... hope you don't mind.

1) Architeuthis [deposed king of the invertebrates] 2) Mesonychoteuthis [the reigning king] 3) Syrinx aruanus [largest known gastropod] 4) Megateuthis [largest known belemnite] 5) Platyceramus [largest known bivalve] 6) Parapuzosia seppenradensis [largest known ammonite] 7) Cameroceras [largest known nautiloid]

Cameroceras is my pick for the coolest animal of all time. It's a bus-sized ice cream cone with tentacles! They don't make 'em like that anymore.