Observing Apes

Elo, a subadult female chimpanzee living in the Goualougo Triangle, hammers the blunt end of a large tree branch against a tree trunk to break open a beehive and acquire honey. This chimpanzee is particularly significant to me because she is named after the director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, Elizabeth Lonsdorf, Ph.D.

Graduate Researcher Marissa Milstein and Goualougo Triangle Ape Project Co-director David Morgan looking for chimpanzees in the remote Republic of Congo.

As Elo attempts to gather honey, a juvenile male chimpanzee named SteveRoss (after Steve Ross, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the Fisher Center) observes Elo close by. Goualougo chimpanzees are well-known for their impressive tool-using skills. To have the opportunity to observe one form of tool use, honey gathering, with my own eyes is a truly humbling experience. More so, it’s especially exciting when it involves the two Goualougo chimpanzees named after great Fisher Center scientists! Talk about collaboration in action!

We have officially passed the halfway point of this summer’s field season—time flies when studying wild chimpanzees. The Goualougo field team led by David Morgan, Ph.D., and Crickette Sanz, Ph.D., make finding and following chimpanzees look easy, but it requires a lot of hard work and an incredible knowledge of the forest. They, along with the Goualougo research assistants and trackers, start each day in the forest systematically recording animal signs—from large elephant footprints to slight bends in branches that indicates the presence of gorillas.

To a novice like myself, these animal tracks are difficult to distinguish and easy to walk pass. But to the seasoned, extremely capable Goualougo field team, they are clear, offering essential clues to understanding Goualougo animal abundance and finding chimpanzees.

Once we encounter chimpanzees, Goualougo researchers are hard at work. They immediately begin to identify the number of apes present as well as each individual. This is no easy task. Chimpanzee social structure is characterized as “fission-fusion.” Chimpanzees live in large communities and these communities break apart (i.e. fission) into different parties and then fuse together. This fluid social structure makes following and understanding chimpanzee sociality challenging but all the more interesting!

In addition to understanding the composition of the chimpanzee party, observational health data for each ape is recorded, video is captured and detailed behavioral data is collected. It’s clear that the Goualougo team works tirelessly to ensure high-quality, multi-faceted research in an effort to maintain the long-term survival of the Goualougo’s chimpanzees and gorillas.

It’s a privilege to be here and watch great science and collaboration in action. In the Goualougo Triangle, each day is an adventure—there is never a dull day when following chimpanzees. There is only one more month until the field season comes to a close, and I look forward to what is in store.

Marissa Milstein


Awesome stuff. I know a lot of grad students who are unhappy with their research field, but I imagine you're loving yours. I have 2 questions:
1. How many hours of video do you capture each day? Do you watch it there or watch it later and take it back home?
2. Any advice for a college senior thinking about grad school?

I guess that was 3 questions. Anyways, I love following the field diaries, keep up the good work!

Dave replies:

"Thanks for writing, these are great questions. Three to four teams of field researchers go out each day and collect video from handheld cameras. It’s hard to quantify how much video is collected each day; it can range from a few minutes to hours, depending on how many chimpanzees and gorilla are encountered. There are also 18 passive inferred triggered cameras stationed at termite mounds and important feeding trees. These cameras are a fantastic resource, as they capture video of wildlife day or night. All of this video footage is backed up in Congo and then taken back to the States for analysis at Washington University.

For a college senior, I would suggest getting some research experience. If you are interested in studying ape behavior, the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo has many volunteer research opportunities. There are many such volunteer research and internship opportunites at zoological parks and university research laboratories.

Best of luck with your future career goals and keep reading Lincoln Park Zoo’s blog!"

Good answers, thanks Dave! I'll tweet your answers.

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