In April 2004, six year old twin chimps Golden and Glitter set off from their mother to taste independence.

They were quite young to be taking such a bold step — indeed, neither Jane Goodall nor any other researcher at Gombe National Park had ever seen a young female set off on her own so early. 

They stayed close together like lost, best friends as they tromped through vegetation and undergrowth. When they did lose sight of one another, they cried like other young chimps do when separated from their mothers. But they stayed away for three days. 

It was a true adventure for these, the only set of twins in Gombe National Park, and the oldest known set of chimpanzee twins in existence. There was an encounter with a bush pig; there were many meals of flying termites; there were moments of panic and of jubilation; and, as with any good adventure, there was a successful reunion with their mother, Gremlin.

"Since their birth, the twins’ behaviour has been observed, documented, analyzed, pondered over and has generally received more attention than the behaviour of most human children. From mother-daughter relations to sibling relations to the way in which skills are passed from one generation to the next, this family, these twins, have provided excellent data," says Jane Goodall.

Rare, with a fluffy tuft of hair

In the 55 years since Dr Goodall first began the ongoing study at Gombe, there have been only three known cases of twin chimpanzees, including Golden and Glitter. Rearing twins is tremendously challenging for mothers, who constantly carry their infants in the early months and are often their sole protectors throughout their long childhood. Most commonly, one of a set of twins will die early on.

On July 13, 1998, Gremlin gave birth to Golden and Glitter. A fluffy tuft of hair on her forehead and a bit more white on her chin were all that distinguished Golden from Glitter. But they were healthy from the beginning, though a bit smaller than single infant chimpanzees.

It was but three days after their birth that the twins faced a grave threat. A pair of high ranking females, Fanni and Fifi, began stalking Gremlin and her newborns, not uncommon behaviour in chimpanzee communities. The two newborns were clutching their mother’s chest, their small hands the only hint of clinging bodies as their dark fur blended with their mother’s.

Bill Wallauer, videographer at Gombe Stream Research Centre, was there. "Fifi got that look in her eyes — the one she gets when she’s after something,” he says. "An attack seemed inevitable."

Fifi and Fanni eyed Gremlin for many tense minutes; they moved when she moved, sat close by when she stopped. Finally — seemingly without warning to the untrained eye — they charged, trapping Gremlin between two trees, striking her with their hands and with a vine hanging low beside her. Still clutching the twins to her chest, Gremlin eventually escaped their blows and made it to a nearby tree limb where ally males protected her.

The attack didn't last long, but had Fanni or Fifi grabbed one or both of the twins, they most likely would have killed them. Jane first documented these kinds of cannibalistic attacks upon newborns in the mid-1970s, when mother and daughter Passion and Pom attacked and killed seven infants in an excruciating and dark period of Gombe history. Fifi had also instigated an attack on Gremlin in 1993, but again that infant, Gaia, went unharmed.

Big Sister

Although twins result in a loss of mobility for their mother, as it is more difficult for her to travel while supporting her infants, Gremlin managed well, not only because she is highly skilled in her role, but because she has had the help of her older daughter Gaia.

Gaia was born to Gremlin on February 2, 1993, making her five and a half years old by the time the twins had arrived. After what appeared to be her initial alarm at having gained two sisters and lost much of the attention of her mother, she seemed to realize the friendship that comes from siblings. Gaia formed a very strong relationship with Glitter. The two often fed, groomed, and rested together. Golden remained closer to Gremlin, though Gaia groomed and played with both of the twins when Gremlin was resting. "I've never known of such a strong bond between older and younger sister," says Wallauer. "They had a great relationship for years; Golden was more of a Mummy's girl so Gaia filled in when it came to Glitter. Now, though, Gaia spends much of her time away from Gremlin and the twins, and Glitter is, of course, more independent."

Strange Behaviour

No one has seen more of the twins’ maturation than Wallauer. He discovered the twins three days after their birth and has filmed many hours of their life together. One typical day, while out following the family as they traveled to eat the yellow flowers of Msoloti, Wallauer happened upon a scene that had never been witnessed by researchers. With redtail monkeys in the tree that the chimps had just climbed, he anticipated trouble; the two species seem always to be at odds, and older chimps sometimes hunt and eat redtails.

Instead, Bill was surprised to see both monkey and chimps acting casual and relaxed. Even more surprising, Glitta was grooming the redtail, "acting as if this was an everyday event," he says. Moments later, another hand extended down from above; Golden began to touch the monkey as well. She combed her fingers through the monkey’s hair, then sniffed them. This went on for several minutes, then the redtail sat up. Golden climbed out of view while Glitter remained beside the redtail on the branch.

"He seemed to be truly enjoying the attention of the twins. They sat side by side, then Glitter continued to groom the young monkey. I was so amazed I could hardly keep the camera still. It was one of those times that you are afraid to breath for fear the magic of the moment will dissolve in front of you."

What Lies Ahead?

Having observed so many amazing and novel behaviours in the twins, researchers look to the future with great anticipation. The next five years will be well documented, certainly, and observers expect to see even more remarkable behaviours. "This is a close family, with a history of caring and compassion, even from the time of Melissa in the 70s," says Wallauer. "The twins may be inseparable for the first few years of maturity — until they’re where Gaia is now — then begin to drift from one another physically, not emotionally. I suspect they will continue to have a close personal relationship — from traveling together, grooming together, raising their kids together — throughout their lives."