Learning from the Zoo in the Last Place on Earth

New approaches for collecting behavioral data are rapidly changing not only the way researchers record observations but also the scope of the questions they ask. At the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, gone are the days of painstakingly entering data into a computer. Lincoln Park Zoo behavioral-monitoring researchers regularly collect detailed, systematic data on resident apes that can be analyzed once the information is simply uploaded from the handheld.


Fisher Center researchers use handheld devices to record ape behavioral observations at Regenstein Center for African Apes.

It doesn’t take long for a visitor to Regenstein Center for African Apes to see just how practical a handheld data collection device is for recording observations on gorillas and chimpanzees. However handy these devices are, though, adopting such technology can require considerable guidance and training. This is perhaps why many field researchers have yet to replace the standard notebook and pen for a PalmPilot or iPad.

When Crickette Sanz and I first embraced working with handheld data collection devices in the Republic of Congo’s remote Goualougo Triangle, we spent many hours trouble-shooting questions on protocols, software and the devices themselves. Much like at Regenstein Center for African Apes, our research questions and environmental conditions involve unique needs. We feel truly fortunate that the Fisher Center’s Elizabeth Lonsdorf, Steve Ross and Kathy Wagner have been so helpful in developing a behavioral monitoring program for the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.

Partnership between behavioral scientists working in a zoological setting and field researchers studying the same species—gorillas and chimpanzees, in our case—makes perfect sense. Like the Fisher Center, our research aims to develop an understanding of ape social structure, complex social dynamics and learning processes—but in a wild setting.


Thanks in part to Fisher Center support, Dave Morgan and partner Crickette Sanz use handheld devices to record wild ape behavioral data in the remote Goualougo Triangle.

Thanks to Lincoln Park Zoo scientists’ many years of experience in developing their own comprehensive data-collection program, a detailed coding scheme is now in place for the Goualougo Triangle. What’s truly exciting is that this systematic monitoring program includes many of the same behaviors recorded at the Fisher Center. This will make it possible to make general comparisons between apes at Lincoln Park Zoo and those in the wild. Ultimately, the information gleaned from such studies may be used to improve these amazing animals’ environmental conditions and prospects for survival.

Dave Morgan

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