Spies Like Us

Tropical forests are one of the most challenging environments in which to work. Beyond the physical conditions themselves, forests can be problematic for research because detailed observations can be extremely difficult to achieve. A dense understory, large trees with connecting canopies and elusive study animals challenge even the best and most-dedicated observers. Conditions like these have led many to search for alternative, high-tech solutions for assistance.

We initially started using remote video cameras to document the termite-fishing behavior of the chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle. For decades, researchers in this region had remarked about discarded chimpanzee tools at termite nests. However, because observations of the apes putting these tools to use had not been made, the behavior behind these “tool-kits” remained unknown to science. To us, this was significant because the fishing wands and sticks appeared to be more elaborate and varied from those used by chimpanzees in East and West Africa. For these reasons we were intrigued and determined to capture the apes in action (despite the small technicality that they were not habituated to our presence).

Teaming with an engineer we designed the first “Chimpcams,” which are remote video cameras programmed to film the apes when triggered. While still cameras were being used by biologists to capture images of wildlife like bongo and elephants, these were among the first video cameras to be placed in the forests to film apes. We carefully locked the cameras into waterproof housing units and fastened them to trees at termite mounds known to be frequented by the apes. After that, it was just a matter of time until the next termite-fishing chimpanzees wandered up.

To our excitement, the cameras worked and so did the chimpanzees! We observed that the apes would go through a lot of effort preparing the tools and puncturing the ground for just a few termites. It was clear that new insights into chimpanzee tool-use and culture from Central Africa were well on the way. Indeed, we had solved one of the longstanding questions regarding chimpanzee culture in Central Africa. We also discovered that “Chimpcams” would provide a window into ape behavior and forest ecology that previously was not conceivable.

Dave Morgan

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