Chimp Observations in Africa
Student: Rachna Reddy, T'12
Hometown: Port Huron, MI
Research Focus: Behavior and conservation biology of chimpanzees
Major: Evolutionary Anthropology
Mentor: Brian Hare, Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology
This summer I worked at Budongo Conservation Field Station in Masindi Province, Uganda, where a community of 58 chimpanzees has been studied regularly since 1990. This community, called Sonso, is neighbored by three other chimpanzee communities, one of which I worked to habituate, or acclimate to human presence. I entered the forest each day at 6:00 a.m., and returned to camp by 6:30 p.m. with the goal of meeting the chimpanzees before they left their night nests in the morning, and after they made their night nests in the evening (chimpanzees routinely sleep in arboreal nests they construct from leaves and branches). Although I planned to spend much of my time surveying plants rather than chimpanzees themselves, I found I often located the Waibira chimpanzees and was able to follow them. Thus, I could observe their feeding, social and ranging behavior directly and compare it with that of the Sonso chimpanzees.
I recorded the plant material (i.e. leaves, fruit, seeds) and tree species the Waibira chimpanzees fed on, and the heights at which they fed in the tree. I also took behavioral scan samples every five minutes for all visible individuals and recorded the demographics of the group, identifying specific individuals when I could. In my time there, we increased the number of recognized individuals and named them. We also began to collect fecal samples for DNA analysis of these individuals so the relationships between Waibira and Sonso chimpanzees could be known.
The Sonso range is unique in that it occurs in a part of the forest that has experienced significant logging. BCFS itself occupies the buildings of a former sawmill. Some species brought to the area by sawmill workers, including Broussonetia papyrifera, serve as food sources for the Sonso chimpanzees, who feed on its leaves and fruit. Relative to communities at other field sites, the Sonso occupy a small home range and this is thought to be because of the abundance of food source within their range.
This experience has been incredibly educational for me in terms of practical skills, such as tracking chimpanzees, navigating the forest and locating the animals high in the trees. Secondly, being able to observe these primates in their natural habitat and social groups has made me think like a scientist. I found myself forming so many questions while I worked in the forest, and I have returned to find that each of those questions has multiplied into more questions. My plans for my future career have been solidified. I know now that I definitely want to pursue a Ph.D. and continue this work. I am so grateful to URS for this summer and for the funding I have received for lemur work in the past three years. None of my research would have been possible without it and I would not be headed, in the next year or so, into a long career that I am this excited about and prepared for.