Let’s call this like it is: the Beginning of the End of my dissertation time in the field. Ten more weeks until I have to wrap this shoot and get down to the nitty gritty: finishing data entry and clean-up, coding video, lab work, running more stats then you can shake a stick at, and so much science writing!!
…I see an uptick in non-vocal displays at my laptop over the next months.
But I also see an uptick in hurrah moments when things are finally coming together into a real, whole picture. Speaking of which, I recently experienced such a moment before coming back to the forest to start the end.
Gola giving her best impression of "Kris versus the Computer" for the next few years...
I took an American break from the field during the rainy season this year to take care of some home things, crunch a few numbers, march for science, and present some preliminary results from my dissertation work at an annual big fancy science meeting in New Orleans.
It’s the meetings- for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists- that I want to tell you about.
Mostly, I’m just so excited about this set of preliminary results. For this talk, I analyzed a subset of my 2015 video data and it seems like my predictions about social attention- namely that the more time a little chimp spends watching and the more closely it watches, the more likely it is to engage in the behavior it’s been watching AND that males are somehow more responsive to social exposure than females- might pan out! Like I said, the results are preliminary, but it still feels really hopeful- which is fantastic! I promise I’ll will share the results with anyone and everyone interested just as soon as the paper comes out over the next year.
This year I also entered in a student contest…and that ALSO panned out! I’ve been a little bit nervous writing about it because I don’t want to come off as bragging or arrogant- but its true that I’ve worked my hardest to plan this project, get that funding, collect and analyze that data, and write that talk as best I could! So here I go…
Every year at this conference there are several awards granted to the top student talks and posters. A few of them are specific to separate disciplines like, best talk in dental morphology, and some of them are across all sub-fields. This year, I won the Ales Hrdlicka Prize for “excellence in student research.” I know it this might “just” be a student award, but science communication and dissemination is so important to me! What’s the point of taking the data if you can’t explain it to everyone? To win a prize for giving a talk in any capacity- I cannot describe what an honor it was to receive. I’m still in a state of slight disbelief.
Every time I remember it, I get all filled up with warm and happy satisfaction. It makes me feel like maybe I really am doing to right thing with my life. At this point in the dissertation process I cannot overstate the importance of such a rooting reminder. We all know that graduate school is hard. And, let’s be honest, there are too few of these sort of victory moments. I think we should celebrate and be proud of all of the little victories- and let them steel us against too many academic struggles, and grant rejections, and all-out data failures. The project certainly isn’t at it’s end yet, but I am so excited about how far it’s come along. So I am taking this win and celebrating it! I am proud. And inspired. And happily steeled against the inevitable future failures!
And now I’m back here! Back in my house at the edge of the forest. Back with my Ugandan friends- human and non-human alike. Ready, and rarin’ to go. I’ve finally got my eyes on the first of so many incremental finish lines between me and my dissertation defense, and I’m ready.
So here we go.
Once upon a time, a forest-loving field researcher and her partner went to the great savanna at Queen Elizabeth National Park. Though less green than her normal environs the savanna was beautiful and full of wildlife!
This is what they found….
From the moment they crossed the equator, herding ungulates, or animals with hooves, dotted the landscape. Though May in Uganda is the low season for tourism, it’s the calving season for kobs, small antelope that range in the park. The babies can be very difficult to see as their mothers hide them in tall kob-colored grass, but the males with their antlers are quite easy to spot. Earthen-red topi are much bigger than kob, and apparently they have one of the most flexible and diverse social systems among the antelopes.
Waterbuck are even bigger still and resemble a sort of deer-donkey hybrid. According to the wildlife guides, their flesh is very unpalatable to local predators who avoid eating them in favor of smaller game.
Cape buffalo were also abundant throughout the park both on the savannah and wading in the channel. Though they look a bit lazy, chewing their cud and staring into space, the brute force behind those huge horns can be quite dangerous. In fact, buffalo are among the most deadly savannah animals across Africa.
One of Queen’s most famous attractions is the UWA-led boat safari of the Kazinga channel. The channel links two of the great lakes of Africa: George and Albert. Boats launch from the Mweya peninsula and creep slowly along the shores highlighting the water-loving hippos, crocodiles and dozens of species of birds.
Every day, the cormorants commute from their roosting spots in the mountains down to the shores of the channel to feast on small fish. Then at sunset, the head back together, flying low over the water until finally pulling up and gaining altitude at the opposite shore.
It seems that every acacia was full to the brim with weaver birds. These birds live in vast colonies of little spherical nests that they enter from below like this one. Here, a male shows off his building talent, padding his nearly-finished abode with the hopes of impressing and enticing one of his colony’s females.
Finally, the crown jewels of the Queen’s park: the famous tree-climbing lions of Ishasha. Toward the southern tip of the park, there is a species of fig tree that grows up out of the scrub. Those trees are so big, with limbs so thick and at the right angles, that they can support the weight of full-grown lions. These lions apparently come from all over the park to rest among the branches enjoying the breezy shade above the flies and the heat of the sun-baked earth.
Before we get started…
Gender is a human cultural construct that ties up a lot of baggage linked to cultural definitions of the way that men and women should behave, rules about how they should interact among themselves and with each other, etc. However, we have no evidence that chimpanzees from differing communities exhibit culturally-based gender-roles. We also have no evidence that behavioral sex differences among chimpanzees are actively reinforced or shaped by other community members. For these reasons, we leave gender out of the chimpanzee conversation. Instead of using those loaded terms, we refer to males and females and discuss sex instead of gender. This is why I have edited the original wording of some of the questions. :)
Full disclosure: I do not study vocal communication specifically, nor do I study vocal development. Infants seem to express a pretty full vocal range at an early age. Within a few months they can make all of the typical chimp sounds: grunts and barks and hoots, etc. but, from what I’ve seen, they don’t consistently apply them appropriately for at least a year.
For instance, consider pant-grunts: Pant-grunts are a submissive vocalization that subordinate chimps make when approaching or being approached by dominant individuals. Thus the appropriate context for pant-grunting would be when chimps of unequal rank come into close proximity. Very young chimps begin pant-grunting after a few weeks. At first, they seem to sort of mirror their mothers, pant-grunting whenever mom does. But then, after a few months, infant pant-grunts seem to disarticulate from this association and infants begin to pant grunt at everything that moves within 10m of them whether their mother is grunting or not. After a year to 18 months, infants have a much better handle on their communication skills and generally are able to restrict their pant-grunting to appropriate contexts. By Leakey’s age (about 3 years old) they’ve got things nailed down.
What kinds of vocalizations do Lobo and Leakey make at these ages?
Do they communicate directly with one another much, or is it generally directed at their mother?
Both infants communicate directly with their mom more often than they communicate with other group members, but I don’t think that I’ve ever noticed either baby using their mother as a conduit for communication with their sibling.
Like other mothers, sometimes Lia will interrupt another individual’s attempt to make direct contact with Lobo. For instance if Leakey wishes to play with Lobo but Lia doesn’t want her to Lia might physically prevent Leakey from touching Lobo or make a vocalization that interrupts Leakey’s advances. That said, for the most part, in my experience chimps communicate directly to each other rather than through third parties.
When do you think mothers become aware of their infant’s sex?
Pretty immediately. From day one moms spend a lot of time grooming and inspecting every inch of their infants (see below). And despite that there aren't obvious differences in the pelage or facial structure of male and female infants, It isn’t too difficult to determine sex in them. Even though males aren’t born with very conspicuous testes, their penises are pink against their black hair and are easy to see (see below). We can even sex infants in the first few days as long as we can get the right angle on things.
Have you found that mothers respond differently to their infants depending on infant sex?
Great question. Let me analyze all this data and get back to you ;)
There isn't too much evidence (at the moment) that mamma chimps treat sons differently than they treat daughters, but it can be a hard thing to study, especially in chimps with long inter-birth-intervals. At Kanyawara, there were no cross-sectional differences in the ways that mothers ranged with male versus female infants (Otali et al. 2006). However, There is a paper from the research team at Gombe have reported that individual mothers range differently when they have infant sons versus infant daughters (Murray et al 2014). One of my hopes for this dissertation is to use my data to reexamine ranging patterns and determine if ranging over the last four years is consistent with either or both of these ideas.
This one, little Lobo, has been giving his “big” sister Leakey grief since conception! If you remember, Lia is one of our two moms that conceived very quickly after her previous baby. As a consequence, Leakey was forced onto the crash-weaning diet just after her second birthday. She was not happy about it, nor has she been quiet about her displeasure, but now she seems to be managing on adult foods just fine!
Lia, who definitely deserves a Super-chimp-mom award, has been carrying both infants wherever she goes since Lobo was born in July. Lobo clings to her belly while Leakey mounts and rides Lia's back. Luckily for Lia, Lobo has a ton of siblings to entertain him when Lia needs a rest.
While I was in the States between seasons, I worried quite a bit about Lia's two infants. Last season Leakey was clearly suffering from her mother's split energies, this season I worried I might return to find both- or really all three of them- in bad shape. The good news is that everyone seems to be coping. Lobo in particular seems to be taking it well- but it is still early in his young life and certainly neither baby is “home free.” I imagine that things will become a bit harder on all three individuals before they ease up, but I'm hopeful...cautiously optimistic even!
And finally, our newest teenie tiny little Wanji, who was born on the second day of this season. Wanji’s name is a Lugandan term that roughly equates to something between “What’s up?” and “Huh?” He was named after a prank that the field assistants pulled on us, tricking us into thinking that Wangari had returned from a month of maternity leave carrying little Wanji along in October. Our field assistants love to play tricks on us- they were quite amused over both our excitement and our disappointment at the reveal. We all got a good laugh too, but it was such a let down! If I hadn’t been there to see Wanji with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have let myself believe the guys until they found him and showed him to me for fear of a repeat disappointment. But, as you may have read in my previous blog, there was nothing disappointing about that day in the forest!
Wanji brings the 2016 baby count to six- a pretty incredible feat when you consider how many females were not eligible to contribute. And, to add a bit of icing to that cake, five of them are boys which rounds out our study population quite nicely. Now I’m just waiting on one more female to give the last of my original study babies a little sibling before the end of data collection in August…
....come on, Leona!
pluh-sen-toe-PHAY-gee: postpartum consumption of the mammalian placenta, or afterbirth
A brief overview of what I’ve been able to find about placentophagy:
While maternal placentophagy is relatively common across mammals, evidence of other, non-mother, placental consumption seems pretty scant. I have not been able to find a previously documented case of non-mother group members consuming placenta in chimps. However, as so many other things, I’m sure that if I’ve seen it, someone else must have. I happily, and eagerly, invite anyone and everyone to send me any evidence that you may have- whether from personal experience or someone else’s documented account.
Witnessing a live birth is extremely rare among wild chimpanzees (but check out this article from Nature about the similarities between human and chimpanzee birthing processes). Because of this, the data is scant, but I’ve gathered what I can about placentophagy at other sites.
Researchers at Bossou, Guinea recently reported a their second case of researchers witnessing a live birth (Fujisawa et al. 2016). In that instance, the mother consumed the placenta and, although others gathered round and inspected the baby, she did not share it with any other individuals. I learned through personal communication that there was a case of one individual female at Gombe carrying her placenta around for days after parturition until it shriveled up and turned black. While several other individuals approached her during this time and were clearly very interested in the placenta, no one other than the mother ever ate any part of it.
And then there's Kanyawara. Luckily, I've been surrounded by field assistants and PI's over the last few weeks and have been able to ask a million questions about their previous experiences here. I confirmed one report of a female burying her placenta after birth. In a second case, a different female ate her own placenta after birth. However, in most cases that we've had an observer in the right place at the right time, the placenta was never seen. This certainly does not preclude placentophagy as mothers generally build large day nests and give birth in those nests, only emerging hours after parturition to rejoin the group (Gombe: Goodall 1980, Kanyawara: unpublished data). We cannot enter such nests to check for the presence/absence of the placenta so it is impossible to comment on whether they were consumed. Further, I have seen older siblings (including this particular placentophile, Gola) entering birthing nests on multiple occasions both while mothers and newborns are still in them, and after they have left. This may provide those siblings with the opportunity to access and consume their mother’s placentas but, again, is very difficult to confirm or refute due to nesting conditions.
So again: calling all field biologists! Send more information! You can even use the comments section of this blog post to add your experience or any cases that you’ve read about or even just to name some people that I should ask about it! I am really interested to know if what we saw was truly “unique” or just under-reported!
1. Fujisawa, M., Hockings, K. J., Soumah, A. G., & Matsuzawa, T. (2016). Placentophagy in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Bossou, Guinea. Primates, 57(2), 175-180.
2. Goodall, J., & Athumani, J. (1980). An observed birth in a free-living chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Primates, 21(4), 545-549.
Yes, it might seem unbelievable that our chimps moms here have managed to add new characters to the Kanyawara cast between July and December, especially given our incredible baby luck these last two seasons, but they continue to amaze me!!
To start, I’d like to introduce you to Delta. This adolescent female first appeared in our community about a year ago, but it can be so hard to tell if females will stick around that I hesitated to really feature her until now.
When I first met Delta she was ranging with Outamba & Co. and I kept transposing her with Omusisa. The adolescent daughter of Outamba, Omusisa is younger than Delta by a few years and slightly smaller, but they both have long-limbs and mottled faces. And of course a pair of young females cycling at the same time can be difficult if we don’t know the shape or average size of either of their estrous swellings. By now the difference between them is clear as day. The easiest diagnostic is Delta’s absolutely fantastic, saucer-like ears. Isn’t she gorgeous?
Delta arrived relatively comfortable with people, but she's not too sure about cameras...
Delta is an extremely expressive chimp and she’s quite sassy too. In the first week of this season she and Omusisa were both in estrous again, courting and competing for males. Early one morning, Eslom joined the party to the usual fanfare and both females rushed toward him, reaching him at the same time. Suddenly, Delta turned to Omusisa and slapped her square in the face sending her rival screaming and winning the opportunity to mate with Eslom. It takes a certain amount of guts for the new girl to compete like that with the daughter of such a high ranking female. Between that and her ears I think it’s pretty easy to see why I love her so much. I can’t wait to see what she’s like as a new mom!
Mucuso is named for a fig tree planted in the 90's by Chimp House that *finally* produced a big enough crop of fruits to attract the chimps in 2016. He was born about a week before I left the forest in July so I couldn’t begin to include him as a focal last season, but I started following him immediately when I returned in December. As he nears his half-birthday a rambunctious little personality is already emerging. Luckily for mom, Mucuso’s sister, Mango, keeps him busy with hours of gentle wrestling and tickling! Despite his high energy levels (or maybe because of them), Mucuso seems to have a relaxing effect on his mother, Michelle, who has become more and more comfortable with human observers watching her offspring. I must admit that I’m predisposed to like Mucuso as his mother is named for a hero of mine, First Lady Michelle Obama. And his big ears fit him so well! Apparently I have a thing for big chimpanzee ears… I like to think this pair would do both the First Lady and her husband proud!
I’ve got two more introductions for you next week, so stay tuned, guys!
This is Mucuso's "Eager Anticipation" face... he just can't wait for Part 2!
Today we waited for the sun to rise a bit before heading into the forest because there were elephants on the road as Fred and Dan were heading to chimp house. I had heard them from my porch- when Dan and Fred approached I strobed my flashlight in their direction and called “Enjojo!” waiting for the elephants to pass. Even by the time we entered the forest, the elephants were only 150m or so down Karambe road. As we turned up Census, Dan peered down Karambe. “Look!”
He pointed down the road as the profile of a massive elephant with absolutely enormous tusks emerged onto Karambe and fell into line behind two more elephants: a smallish young one, and another big one. They filled the entire road as they lumbered along.
I always count an encounter like this one as a good omen. Elephants are incredible to see from a safe distance. Every single time I see them this way, my utter amazement of them is renewed.
We continued in the other direction, up Cenus, meeting some females on the road. The girls led us back to the mucoso where we met with another, larger group of chimps chowing down their breakfasts. As we counted and identified each chimp in the party, Gola darted across a limb of the colossal tree carrying a hunk of something in her hand and her hip pocket, alternatively. She was so high up in the soft gray dawn light that we could barely make out what she carried- even through my binoculars.
“It looks like a huge piece of meat…” I muttered.
Dan and Fred nodded their heads in agreement. As we discussed what it might be, we thought it was a bit strange. No one saw them hunt yesterday, so this one must be fresh. And yet, it looked entirely hairless, so they must have been working on the carcass for a while. What part of the monkey could it be anyway? I noticed a thin, stringy bit like tendon or intestines. Again, strange. It wasn’t a piece with limbs on it, and kids almost never got those best torso bits with all the good guts that males love so much. And where was the rest of the monkey anyway? Who caught it? Were there others??
Some of the other juveniles approached her curiously. Each leaned in to examine the thing from a few inches away, smelling it, then moving away after a few moments. But none of the adults were very interested. And no one begged for it. And I still couldn’t locate any other chimps with meat. But then, it was truly poor viewing. Someone could have easily been chomping away at the rest of the monkey in a safe spot that was too high for me to find or to dark for my eyes in this light.
I made a note to keep an eye out and began my focal follow on Moon while the guys continued to mark down who was in the party.
A few minutes later Dan announced “Wangari is here!”
My heart leapt a little! I followed her youngest son, Winza, yesterday in the afternoon and I couldn’t find Wangari anywhere. The guys had seen her on Sunday, but her absence worried me because Winza rarely strays far from his monther. She isn’t dead! I thought. And thank Darwin because I am not ready for another loss so quickly into the new season.
Binoculars up—I searched her as she climbed down from the heights of the mucosu….something thin and stringy dangled from between her legs. It looked like monkey intestines. But then, if it were a monkey, wouldn’t be carrying that in her hands or her mouth? Between her legs a tiny black bundle—wait, wait, could it be?! Did Wangari have a BABY?! Is that a stringy UMBILICAL CORD?! YES!!!
Wohoo! Talk about a great start to the season- let alone the day! Wangari finally had a new baby!
Wait, wait, wait again.
The meat that Gola had, the hunk that, to the best of my previous assessment, looked like a cross between a tenderloin and a big liver, like cow liver- there was a stringy part that looked like an intestine hanging down from that thing too. She licked a few times before tucking the whole mess back into her hip pocket. Could this stringy thing also be umbilical cord? Is Gola noshing on Wangari’s placenta?
First thought: Have we ever seen that before? There are plenty of animals that eat their placentas after birth, but how often do non-mothers sneak a taste? I remember my advisor telling me a story about one female actually burying the placenta after the birth of her infant. I’ve never seen a female give birth and we never saw Tenkere’s, Outamba’s, or Michelle’s placenta last season. So I don’t have any personal experience in the matter. But it seems strange for one individual to consume the placenta of another. Note to self: ask the long-term FA’s if they have ever seen this before so I can write a more informed piece later.
Second thought: Chimps are so gross sometimes.
Yes, I know. How terribly unscientific of me! But I'll take no judgment from you unless you can look me in the eye and tell me that you didn’t cringe a little reading it? Be honest!
What an absolutely wonderful way to start a season! Just absolutely incredible! Now I’m only waiting on one of the little ladies that I started this project with to become a big sister: Lilly. Then all of the only-kids and youngest babies from my first season will have graduated to the next stage of their young social lives!
I’m trying to hold on to rationality, and to stop myself counting any chickens, but I think maybe, just maaaybe, this season might be a really, really good one.
Day one in the forest:
I’ve never been an early riser, but the anticipation of reuniting with the chimps (regardless of my awareness that they surely are never as excited to see me) always the edge off of that 5am wake-up call. I actually find myself looking forward to those brisk, dark mornings, swallowing as much coffee as I can while check my gear before heading out the door.
I know they’ve been in relatively large groups. All of the standard, staple females have been around. The big mammas, Outamba, and Lia, with their growing gaggles of juveniles. The boys have been telling me all about Lia- carrying the new baby on the front and the older one on her back- I’ve been dying to see it! Poor Lia has such a big belly in the first place. I can’t imagine how she might possibly fit both babies on her body without dragging one along the ground. She must be exhausted. And then little Leakey can’t be too happy about it either. It’s not exactly fair to make the two-and-a-half year-old walk everywhere.
I’m eager to see how grown-up little Thatcher has become now that she has a younger brother to play with and care for. All but one of the youngest babies from my first pilot season have little siblings now… I can’t wait to see how they each have changed with the addition of their mamma's new babies!
And then there are the two orphans, and two snared juveniles to check-in on. By the time I left last season Wenka was adjusting quite well to her amputated fingers, but Basuta’s injury is fresh. Losing a mother and your fingers in six-months is a tough order, even for a juvenile as big and confident as he is.
These are all the things I’m thinking about as we march up the road in the growing dawn light.
We met them on the road. Tuke displayed back and forth across Census as everyone woke and headed to a nearby mimusops for breakfast. Delta, the new female from last year, was around, and so was Omusisa, both of them in estrus. Oh boy, I thought, It’s gonna be a day. As we reached the tree, the foraging party grew bigger and bigger to include a handful of males, and another half a dozen females and all of their kids! I quickly realized that this was so full of so many kids that I couldn’t possibly follow them all today, or even over two days! It is my favorite kind of problem to have, and a rarer one that you might think, often times the day begins with just one or two kids around. More often than that, the one or two kids around are the one or two that I’ve followed more than any other. But today, opening day, I was faced with the perplexing question of how to choose which kid I should follow first?
I skipped over Utah because I knew Umbrella wouldn’t be too hard to find again. Stella too, for the same reason. Moon and Basuta were around but the both seemed a bit squirly, better to let them get used to me again. The O’s were all there, and all made good candidates because it can be impossible to get through them all on enough different days to get enough hours on each. Michelle had little Mucoso, who I hadn’t ever followed yet. How appropriate to follow Mucoso in a Ficus mucoso?!
But then my eyes rested on Thatcher. She’s been with me since the beginning. Her family doesn’t need too much time to get used to me. There’s little Tangawizi too! And my first follow of the season with my favorite little chimp? Don’t mind if I do…
This is my favorite kind of problem to have.
…No but seriously, didn’t I just get back from Kibale yesterday? Or wait, have I been back for a decade? What day is it? What year is it? Is this real life??
The good news is that, thanks to the Leakey and Nacey Maggioncalda Foundations, season three will start really soon, guys! In fact, if everything goes according to plan, you can expect a slew of new baby photos before the New Year… Which might be a damned good thing because I sneakily suspect that a hell mouth might open up in D.C. around the 20th of January… and in such a climate we may suddenly find that the world needs pictures of happy baby animals being adorable more than we ever have before.
The last time I talked about the Time Warp (see previous blog post) I was trying to communicate with words the way it feels to move between two very different paces of living on two different continents and among two cultures that are so similar and so different that my head spins. This time there’s a different kind of warping. I’m tugged and tied between two polemical sets of feelings: the purest, deepest excited happiness at the thought of seeing the chimps again, and this quietly pervasive underlying dread of what I might discover this year.
You see, I used to live in this beautiful bubble of a fairy-tell forest wonderland where all the chimps had too much to eat (see any 2015 blog post for evidence). All the moms hung out together so their chimp-kids could play together and the moms even jumped in sometimes. In 2015, my jaw hit the floor more times that I can count in utter awe of this sort of chimp Utopia that I was witnessing. It was certainly not representative of the “norm.” It didn’t fit anything that I had ever read or been told about female chimpanzee sociality. But as unrealistic as it may have been, it was real. It all really happened. I have the video to prove it! And it was impossible to walk away from. I came back a bit shattered and struggled to get all my pieces in order.
Then last season, 2016, was… just so hard in so many ways. Between the sudden uptick in snare injuries and the deaths of two babies, one mamma, and a subadult female, I got a crash course in chimpanzee tragedy. And, frankly, those events were just different tips of an iceberg. For the first time ever, when I left the forest last July I wasn’t kicking and screaming or lamenting the tragedy of life outside of Kibale. In fact, I was kind of ready to go home and that was the most uncomfortable thing about leaving.
Now, don’t get me wrong- I’m a filthy Nasty field woman through and through. And I always will be. But it’s important to talk about The Forest and field experiences as multidimensionally complex. As idyllic Technicolor as field life may appear from the outside, it is fully shaded in greys and thick bands of darkness too. It can be so hard to talk about it without oversimplifying, dichotomizing, or even accidently emphasizing the “better” part of the narrative at the expense of tackling the muddy ones. And, as any of you who know me might surmise, I tend to believe that the muddy bits are the most important to the story.
The truth is, that I couldn’t possibly need the forest more right now. Living at Kibale and spending my days chimping is so easily my most cherished privilege- one that I work very hard to honor and earn. Since I started fieldwork, I’ve been lucky enough to consider several forests- some of the most beautiful, perfect, privileged places in the world- as my second homes and my safe spaces. Even at a Forest’s worst- crawling in snakes, infested with ants or bees or both, stuffed full of cranky elephants, pocketed with giant pits of muddy swamp, shrouded in pissing rain, when I’ve got baboons in the foyer- I am a weirdo, energized and restored by solitude and the forest. What more could a girl possibly as for?
It just never occurred to me that the bottom could have fallen out like it did last year. And I know its good data, but damnit that just doesn’t adequately ease the sting of it.
But then… there’s so much left to see! So many things that I haven’t seen yet- that no one else has seen before! And even beneath such lofty goals there are these chimps that I know so well that I’ve been watching since they were so tiny and now they’re getting to be so big! Even now, as I’m writing and thinking of meeting Leakey’s new little sibling, or watching Thatcher play with little Tangawizi because he’ll finally be old enough that Tongo lets her, or checking in on tiny Omukunyu to see if she’s caught up to her day-older but much larger cousin, my cheeks are tingling with the burn of this smile plastered across my face.
So gosh, I guess I’m not too torn, huh? Somehow that deep warm happiness spreads across the tension of slightly fearful anticipation and snuffs it out. Maybe 15% anxious to 85% excited? The chimpanzees are playing… and I’ll be there so soon…
Mango is one of the original five infants of my study and, like her contemporaries, has grown-up so much since I met her! In 2013 both she and her mother, Michelle, were very shy. Michelle especially dislikes the camera and was very protective over little Mango. The pair also spent quite a lot of time on their own which added an extra level of difficulty for finding and tracking them. One of my favorite early moments following Mango was an hour-long play bout with Mango swinging across a trail in a tangle of vines. She was having so much fun and I couldn’t help but giggle through the whole hour. Until this season, Michelle and Mango were easily among the most difficult chimps for me to follow and photograph.
Over the years Michelle has slowly become more and more comfortable with researchers and in her position in the group and consequently spends more time with other chimps toward the center of the community. Mango’s curiosity has grown and she’s become bolder and more playful.
The thing about a pair of chimps like Michelle and Mango is that they remind me what my job means in ways that are more intrinsic than the science that I do. They teach me patience and flexibility. They teach me to track. They encourage me to work on my relationship with the forest and how to move through it. These two are the type whose trust you have to earn slowly over the days and months and years. But once you’re in its so worth it!
Last year (2015) I caught Michelle in a rare jovial moment: she completely she her normal serious adult façade, dropping her bottom mouth into a play into a big open play-face before charging into a massive play bout between five juveniles. Mango wasn’t even playing at the time! Michelle just jumped right in with all the kids first and waited for her daughter to catch up! That moment was one of the happiest of my life and instantly became a bit of a metaphor that I rely on to help me remember why I do what I do when things get hard. My job can be so difficult in so many dimensions-both in the field and back in the states- and it can be so easy to fall into a hole of questioning how and why I ended up here… but remembering the day that Michelle and Mango jumped into a pile of wrestling chimp kiddos is like instant happiness and one of the easiest reminders of how to answer all of those life questions.
This summer, when Michelle gave birth to Mango’s new baby brother, Mucoso, the distraction gave Mango some extra room to stretch her social legs! And that’s when I finally snapped this photos- which you may recognize from my homepage.
More to come...
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.