29 March 2015
*Note: Just in case you cannot imaging me laughing as I tell you this story, the tone of this piece is more than slightly amused exasperation*
It might not surprise you when I tell you that I learn more about the world than “just” chimpanzee behavior from my field experiences. It hasn’t surprised me either. Aside from tons and tons of information, I’ve learned to expect surprises, random hurdles, unpredictable changes in absolutely everything, and (most importantly) to expect that any expectations about the aforementioned will be exceeded and undermined- sometimes simultaneously.
It is easy for anyone to realize that other animals are pretty darned interested in your things- especially when those things are food. It only takes a few days in this forest to realize that baboons are a constant threat. In Kakamega, the blue monkeys were constantly trying to sneak into the house for a snack. When you really settle down in the woods, and your kitchen is a small building butting right up to a nice patch of trees and underbrush, it is not surprising that the rats move in to feast on your bountiful supply of sweet fruits and processed carbohydrates. It is an annoyance, of course, but it is understood that you must spend a bit of time to protect yourself from sharing with rodent friends.
I did not expect them to demolish every non-metal food storage unit overnight. We dealt with that hurdle by adding a few new ones to their nightly routine, shifting all of our fruit, veg, and carbs into a metal trunk. They promptly resolved their food access problem, managed to flip the latch and prop the lid open- even though we anticipated it ahead of time and weighed the lid with two bricks. Luckily, they haven’t grown thumbs to open the lock we use now to prevent them from unlatching our little treasure trunk (though I sometimes feel like it could happen at any moment). Instead, their solution has been to chew through the wall of our house to run around the common room all night snacking on anything that is accidently left out, regardless of what we would consider “edibility.” The walls are cinderblock. We still cannot find the entry point. We bought another trunk.
So far, despite the frustration of realizing a tiny little rat brain has outsmarted me yet again, these are the type of struggles I expect and am mentally prepared to deal with. Mango flies are another expected annoyance- relatively easily thwarted (thank heavens) by ironing everything. Even- no especially– your underwear.
What never occurred to me was that rats would eat 80% of the underwear that I brought to Uganda in the space of a single night between being taken off the laundry line and ironed the next day (oh how I wish I was exaggerating).
When rats eat so much of your underwear, you embark on an epic adventure to replace them. You hop on a boda (motorbike) with trusty side-kicks and head for Fort Portal---
And then, as it turns out, the only underwear you can buy in Fort Portal are the kind that were rejected from every Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc. and shipped to Africa wholesale in giant bundles of all things wearable.
When rats eat so much of your underwear, and there are not suitable replacements in a 200km radius, you hop in a car with your trusty sidekicks. You drive through hurricane-style rain storms, pull off the road for safety just to navigate through a small river, narrowly avoiding a water-logged Toyota. You finally make it to the big city, lay down for a well-earned night's sleep and wake up to find that not surprisingly, in all that mess, you've punctured a tire. Luckily you're driving the one Toyata in Uganda with a spare! And luckily, your trusty side kicks are excellent tire-changers, you switch it out in record time- and you don't even need assistance from the Texan missionary who offered so much advice but no real help while he sat there watching you get your hands dirty----
AND THEN, as it turns out, somehow it is nearly impossible to find a decent pair of underwear even when you scour 3 malls between Kampala and Entebbe. Yes, apparently the only place to find new underwear is the supermarket. Further, all of said underwear is XXL or “high cut” circa 1984, or both. Or- the one alternative that we did find- is the right size, a decent cut that will actually stay on your hip-less body, but with very round and cushy BUTT PADING that tones and shapes and add a whole “butt size.”
In the end, the trip to the big city has resulted in locating exactly 4 pairs of underwear that are even remotely suitable and will solve the problem for the time being. Who knows how well they’ll stand up to ironing. Or the rats.
I have also acquired a few bottles of wine and some good, dark chocolate…
5th March 2015
Generally speaking, my academic work comes more easily when I’m in the field. Something about being in it- being in the forest, in a group of chimpanzees, in the work itself- keeps my mind in the right frame for organizing thoughts into words and methods. But sometimes the sound of a tree snapping under the weight of an elephant cuts through chilled night air like a gunshot, and I freeze, thoughts fleeing from my uneasy mind.
I have a deep and profound respect for elephants. As a scientist of sociality, they are incredibly fascinating: multi-tiered social systems, extended matriarchal families, complex communication, visiting the bones of dead relatives… They have this mysterious intelligence about them, not to mention their delightful charisma. Truly a mega fauna.
But Anjojo hangs in the air like this menacing force- this monster that we never see but always sense. Waiting for you around any corner, behind any tree, in any valley. It holds this tension that knots my stomach.
The tree was so loud and so close that I thought it must have fallen just beside the house. But when I stepped outside and lit the lawn up to the forest line with my headlamp, there was nothing. No signs of disturbance.
I can still hear them now- I could hear them from the porch too. Cracking, smashing. They sound like aliens: low, guttural rumblings that roll toward me then- POP! My hair is raised and these goosebumps are not from the cold- my hot cup of chamomile won’t soothe them.
There are lights on all the front and back porches, and by the kitchen and outhouse doors. The light on 4b illuminates the side yard past the fence to the road- and yet, in all of this light space, my ears filled up with elephant sounds, I see nothing. Not so much as a branch or a leaf quivers. Its like they hover just beyond that pitch black shadow wall, pulling trees to the ground to taunt me.
…Perhaps I’ve labored too hard over the same three paragraphs of this proposal for the last two- okay, four- hours. Maybe I should stop weighing the costs and benefits of using one term instead of another. Or whether I have the room to squeeze in that extra line of text to better justify my choice of a GLMM instead of a GAMM approach- and should I write out each and every control and random effect every time for every test or leave it to the summary in this table?
At least I have Anjojo to pull me of my own head, back to the real world and remind me that its time for bed.
Here's a smattering of some of the better photographs I've taken this season. I hope you all enjoy the images as much as I enjoy taking them!
20 February 2015
Do you remember the time that I told you about our alpha candidates, Lanjo and Eslom? And my personal opinions and feelings about both of them? Well the new has officially broken, folks: we have a new alpha at Kanyawara! To see the story that pairs with that headline check out the blog post that I co-wrote with my lab mate, Drew, on the Kibale Chimpanzee Project website (https://kibalechimpanzees.wordpress.com/news/).
*DISCLAIMER: the following commentary represents my thoughts, feeling, and opinions alone and does not necessarily reflect those of other individual or group of individuals including but not limited to those associated with KCP, the University of New Mexico, or Harvard University*
I was there when it happened that Tuesday afternoon. Not ten meters from where I sat with the FA’s, another researcher, and our new photographer. The photographer could sense that something big was happening- I’m not sure if he picked up more on the chimp cues or our dropped jaws. It was such a quietly colossal moment.
Somehow I just thought that it would be more of a big deal. I don’t know why it wsa so dead-set in my head. Maybe it was the way things went down between PK and Squirt at Kakamega. It seemed like PK would prefer to die-like he was actively trying to get himself killed- than lose his alpha status. There was so much horrific bloodshed- he suffered a gash to his forehead that opened his skin to the bone. Gravity pulled it down over his eye, closing it completely but leaving the big swatch of skull exposed. It was gruesome.
True, this situation was very different- not a coups d’etas, just a race for the open slot. But I still expected something more like that battle royale. I imagined that Lanjo would finally accept Eslom’s challenges and they would come to blows as the rest of the community watched with eager anticipation. A drawn out, hard-fought battle, and at least a bit of blood. Why yes, I am anthropomorphizing right now. Terribly unscientific of me!
One thing that I honestly expected was an immediate and palpable shift in group social dynamic. And this did not happen.
Yes, Lanjo pant-grunted to formally admit defeat and concede the title, but over the next two weeks it seemed like things went on as usual, like the pant-grunt was an isolated incident. Lanjo might have afforded Eslom a slightly larger berth, but he did not obviously avoid his alpha. Neither did Eslom target Lanjo. I started to think maybe we jumped the gun or imagined the whole thing in the first place.
I finally detected the shift mid-February. Eslom began making foraging and traveling decisions and everyone followed. He’s led no less than six hunts since he became alpha and four have been successful. He’s taken a monkey in all four of the successful ones. In fact, one hunt ranks among the most successful in our history- they took down seven red colobus that day. Even a female or two snatched some monkeys. Max (who lost both of his feet to snare injuries as a juvenile) managed to take a monkey!
By now it is unmistakable. Eslom has settled into his new role, everyone respects his status. He still plays with all the babies- especially Winza and Leaky- and he even defends our 6-year-old-orphan, Moon (I will be posting about Moon shortly). His displays have come a long way since my first summer. He moves with finessed and measured muscle power. He has this kind of masculine elegance similar an Olympic gymnast. He is also perfectly puffy like a teddy bear when his hair goes piloerect during a display, but somehow that feels like I’m undermining his alpha-ness.
Then again, maybe I’m not. Maybe the best way to conceive of Eslom is to try and make wrap your brain around a very manly, badass, tough-as-nails teddy bear with super-hero strength and the grace of a dancer.
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.