Gombe Field Research

Zoo scientists study chimpanzee health and play in Gombe National Park, the site of Jane Goodall's groundbreaking research.

Learning from Africa's Iconic Chimpanzees

The site of Dr. Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking research, Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park has changed our understanding of animals and altered our perception of what it means to be human. Since 1960, Goodall and her peers have observed generations of the area’s chimpanzees. The behaviors they recorded—chimpanzees making and using tools, hunting prey and even waging warfare—exceeded the boundaries of what was previously thought possible, capturing worldwide attention and galvanizing global conservation efforts.

Today, Lincoln Park Zoo is proud to partner with the Jane Goodall Institute on a number of research projects in Gombe Stream National Park. Zoo scientists take advantage of the resources that have been established over nearly half a century to study chimpanzee health and chimpanzee play. The answers our scientists find through this partnership will be integral to learning more about chimpanzees and, ultimately, ourselves.

Projects

Studying The Benefits of Play
Play is fun, but it must also confer some benefits to have endured over the years. By studying chimpanzees as they play, scientists hope to unlock why we all play.

Gombe Ecosystem Health Project
Understanding chimpanzee health is essential to conserving these endangered animals. To establish a baseline for good health, scientists follow apes as they move through the forest.

Using Hormones to Measure Health
By testing the feces Gombe chimpanzees leave behind in the forest, zoo scientists can get a measure of stress in this endangered population.

About Gombe

Understanding an Ecosytem
Learn about the iconic African ecosystem where zoo scientists—and the Jane Goodall Institute—research chimpanzees.

Multimedia

See Gombe Firsthand
Experience Gombe and its famous chimpanzees through slideshows, blog posts and more.


Studying the Benefits of Play

By studying Gombe's chimpanzees as they play, Lincoln Park Zoo scientists hope to unlock why we all play.

Kittens unravel balls of yarn, puppies sprint for games of fetch, children chase each other in endless games of tag. Play is a common behavior for mammals, a shared part of the development process.

But while it’s clear that many animals play, why they play is uncertain. From an evolutionary standpoint, play should carry some clear survival benefits to have persisted over time. But studies on the subject have been inconclusive, meaning more research is necessary to understand the benefits of play.

A Perfect Play Laboratory
For researchers looking to understand the benefits of play, Gombe Stream National Park is a great place to start. Because chimpanzees have relatively long developmental periods—like people, they remain “kids” for many years—researchers have plenty of primate play to witness. Throw in 50 years of behavioral observations begun by Dr. Jane Goodall, and you have plenty of data to analyze.

A Serious Study of a Silly Subject
To take advantage of these ample resources, Lincoln Park Zoo is partnering with the Jane Goodall Institute to study the immediate and long-term impacts of play behavior in chimpanzees. Graduate student Matthew Heintz, who studies under Elizabeth Lonsdorf, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology at Franklin and Marshall College, is leading the effort in Gombe Stream National Park.

Heintz’s study has two main objectives. First, he hopes to use his own observations and health data to determine how play influences stress, parasite levels and developmental milestones. Second, he plans to harness Gombe’s decades of behavioral records to determine if there’s a correlation between play and adult success.

Heintz hypothesizes that play helps reduce stress in the short-term, boosting health and benefiting development. As a result, he surmises, chimpanzees that play more when young could be more successful later in life, as measured by rank in the group and number of offspring.

While Heintz and his collaborators are studying play in chimpanzees, the results of their project could benefit humans as well. By learning more about play in one of our closest cousins, we can come to a better understanding of the importance of play for human children.

Staff and Collaborators
Lincoln Park Zoo

Matt Heintz
Research Associate, Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes
Rachel Santymire, Ph.D., is director of Lincoln Park Zoo's Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology.

Rachel Santymire, Ph.D.
Director, Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology

Elizabeth Lonsdorf, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Psychology, Franklin and Marshall College

Carson Murray, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Anthropology Department, George Washington University

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Gombe Ecosystem Health Project

To establish a baseline for good health, zoo scientists follow Gombe's chimpanzees as they move through the forest.

Habitat loss. Hunting. The bushmeat trade. These are among the most-prominent threats facing chimpanzees and gorillas in the wild. In recent years, though, another threat has been identified as impacting endangered populations. Infectious-disease outbreaks—Ebola, anthrax and other illnesses—have been responsible for a spike of deaths among great apes in Africa.

These outbreaks have underscored the fact that an understanding of ape health is an essential element of ape conservation. To help advance our understanding of ape health, Lincoln Park Zoo is partnering with the Jane Goodall Institute to lead the Gombe Ecosystem Health Project.

Establishing a Baseline
To know whether an animal population is unhealthy, it is first necessary to understand what it means for that population to be well. Establishing a baseline for chimpanzee health is a core component of the Gombe Ecosystem Health Project. Field researchers in Gombe Stream National Park observe the park’s chimpanzees, recording observed information about their health, while also collecting fecal samples for lab analysis. These samples can be analyzed for parasites, levels of stress hormones and other indications of disease.

The results of this non-invasive health monitoring are entered into a database shared with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. By analyzing the data, researchers are able to quickly detect—and sometimes even predict—disease outbreaks, boosting their ability to conserve the endangered population.

Collecting Health Data
Researchers in the Gombe Ecosystem Health Project use a variety of methods to collect health data. Health checklists are now part of the Gombe behavioral monitoring project, ensuring that researchers have standardized monthly updates on animal health.

As they conduct observations, researchers also collect fecal and urine samples. These samples are shipped to labs in the United States, where specialists analyze them for parasite loads, levels of stress hormones and the presence of diseases such as Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), a cousin of HIV.

Finally, while researchers are careful not to influence the chimpanzees they study, they are also diligent about learning what they can from animals that have passed away. Veterinarians conduct necropsies (animal autopsies) at Gombe to increase our knowledge of the diseases and chronic conditions affecting the park’s chimpanzees. Together, all of this information helps to create a fuller picture of chimpanzee health, boosting Lincoln Park Zoo and the Jane Goodall Institute's efforts to conserve this endangered species.

Staff and Collaborators
Lincoln Park Zoo

Rachel Santymire, Ph.D., is director of Lincoln Park Zoo's Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology. Rachel Santymire, Ph.D.
Director, Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology

 

Thomas Gillespie, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Global Health Institute Faculty, Emory University

Beatrice Hahn, M.D.
Professor, Medicine and Microbiology, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Mike Kinsel, D.V.M.
Chief, Zoological Pathology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine

Elizabeth Lonsdorf, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Psychology, Franklin and Marshall College

Carson Murray, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Anthropology Department, George Washington University

Karen Terio, D.V.M., Ph.D.
Clinical Assistant Professor, Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine

Dominic Travis, D.V.M.
Associate Professor of Epidemiology, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota

Partners and Supporters
Arcus Foundation
Davee Foundation
Leo S. Guthman Foundation
Mazuri Fund
Morris Animal Foundation
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Using Hormones to Measure Health

By testing the feces Gombe chimpanzees leave behind in the forest, zoo scientists can get a measure of stress in this endangered population.

Decades of observations aren’t the only data scientists use to measure chimpanzee well-being. Since 2004, researchers from Lincoln Park Zoo and the Jane Goodall Institute have been collecting comprehensive chimpanzee health data as well. This project, led by Elizabeth Lonsdorf, Ph.D., Dominic Travis, D.V.M., and Rachel Santymire, Ph.D., will provide a clear benchmark for weighing the health of chimpanzees throughout Gombe Stream National Park.

A key part of the researchers’ tool kit is fecal samples collected from Gombe’s chimpanzees. These samples are sent to the Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology, where Santymire measures the levels of stress hormones found within. The resulting data helps scientists link behavioral observations and biological evidence—key information for understanding the benefits of play or the baselines of health in Gombe Stream National Park.

Staff and Collaborators
Lincoln Park Zoo

Rachel Santymire, Ph.D., is director of Lincoln Park Zoo's Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology. Rachel Santymire, Ph.D.
Director, Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology

 

Elizabeth Lonsdorf, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Psychology, Franklin and Marshall College

Carson Murray, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Anthropology Department, George Washington University

Dominic Travis, D.V.M.
Associate Professor of Epidemiology, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota

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