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Monday, April 12, 2010
Some Help From the Competition
A fair amount of my time at Gombe is spent in the forest looking for chimpanzees. I record health observations when I come upon a target, but ultimately I want fecal samples from the 28 animals on my list. Back at the lab, we can extract hormones from the samples and ship them to Lincoln Park Zoo for analysis. It’s amazing how much information you can get about the status of an individual (and its parasites) non-invasively!
I, however, am not the only one who wants these fecal samples. The insects in the photo above are my greatest competition: dung beetles. At Gombe they come in all colors and sizes, from bright, metallic green ones less than inch long to dull black mammoths three inches in length!
You’ll really notice the beetles when they have dung to find. Within a few seconds of a chimpanzee’s bowel movement, you can hear the unmistakable buzzing of at least one dung beetle flying through the air in search for food. Let a minute or two pass, and a swarm of the insects will be in a flurry of activity, shaping pieces of the fecal matter into little balls for easy transport and rolling them away.
Sometimes having the dung beetles around can be very helpful. Just the other day, one of my targets, Glitter, was chased by Apollo, and we were sure there was a fecal sample somewhere! Amri and one of the other sample collectors set about searching for it while I kept my eye on another target.
After a few minutes of fruitless searching, I thought I’d better join in and help. As I was walking over I heard a faint hum nearby. I looked around, spotted the dung beetle responsible and watched as it flew through the air, maneuvered into place and dropped straight down to the ground from a few feet up.
Sure enough, it had led me to the sample in question! I’m not sure Amri and Sampson knew I was following a dung beetle, but they were definitely surprised when I found what they were looking for so fast!
In exchange for their beetles leading me to my work, I always try to leave as much of the sample as I can for them.
Gombe Field Diaries
Lincoln Park Zoo is partnering with the Jane Goodall Institute to study and conserve chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park, the site of Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking research. Our Gombe field diaries feature updates as scientists monitor chimpanzee health, study ape behavior and experience life in Gombe.
As director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, Lonsdorf leads Lincoln Park Zoo efforts in Gombe National Park.
Rachel Santymire, Ph.D.
An endocrinologist in the Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology, Santymire studies stress and reproduction in Gombe's chipmanzees.
A graduate student in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago, Matt is studying how levels of play in Gombe¹s chimpanzees influence stress, development and reproductive success.
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