Research

Because of their great similarities to humans – both biological and social – chimpanzees offer us great insights into our evolutionary past and our future.

As we observe and document the world of chimpanzees, we learn more about our own behaviours and social patterns, our impact on the ecosystem and even our spread of disease. Chimp research at Gombe National Park in Tanzania and elsewhere also informs the development of strategies to protect chimpanzees and their habitats.

Because of their great similarities to humans – both biological and social – chimpanzees offer us great insights into our evolutionary past and our future.

Researching ChimpanzeesAs we observe and document the world of chimpanzees, we learn more about our own behaviours and social patterns, our impact on the ecosystem and even our spread of disease. Chimp research at Gombe National Park in Tanzania and elsewhere also informs the development of strategies to protect chimpanzees and their habitats.

While Jane Goodall began her field work with little more than binoculars, a pencil and a notebook, times have changed.

Today’s researchers use sophisticated technological tools:

  • Global Positioning System handsets and Geographic Information Systems software enables accurate mapping of chimp ranges and natural resources.
  • Satellite imagery allows tracking of habitat types and changes over time.
  • Non-invasive sampling of urine and dung can measure hormones, SIVcpz (a virus similar to HIV) and signs of infections.
  • Fecal samples can provide enough DNA to confirm paternity and other genetic relationships.
  • Google Earth and high resolution satellite images allow those with access to the Internet to take a virtual flight over Gombe – while they read blog entries from Gombe scientists in the field. Tune into JGI’s blog at: http://www.janegoodall.org/gombe-chimp-blog

technologyToday’s conservationists know that both human and animal needs must be met to preserve wildlife species. In the past, it was thought that setting aside protected areas would be enough – but with the demands of a growing human population, humans and animals must coexist in the same landscapes.

GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, is one of the newest technologies being put to use for conservation efforts. GIS software enables conservationists to map chimp ranges, natural resources, and human settlements – down to a single tree or building, in some cases. JGI uses this powerful tool to develop land-use plans in cooperation with local villages.

High-resolution satellite images of Earth, essentially photographic maps, are another tool we use to monitor habitat loss and human activity. Because the images are taken from an aerial perspective, this technology allows monitoring of areas that are remote or inaccessible by land. Illegal logging operations and slash-and-burn forest clearing for agricultural purposes are types of activities that may be seen in satellite imagery. Monitoring these activities, and predicting their effects on chimps, is an important part of ensuring the sustainability of chimpanzee populations.

Research also helps protect individual chimpanzee populations. At Gombe National Park in Tanzania, field staff members use noninvasive sample collection and laboratory methods to measure hormones, identify and monitor infections such as SIVcpz, a virus similar to HIV, and analyze DNA to confirm paternity and other genetic relationships.

Want to learn more about JGI’s research at Gombe?

Take a virtual flight over the Gombe Stream National Park using Google Earth satellite images! Compare the dense vegetation inside and outside the park, and explore the topography of the hills where Dr Goodall first spied wild chimpanzees. You can also follow Gombe’s chimps on our blog, and keep up with your favorite characters! Visit the blog now.

JGI’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre works primarily to rehabilitate orphaned chimpanzees. But the sanctuary also offers researchers the unique opportunity to study our closest relative – chimpanzees – in a controlled environment but more natural setting than a laboratory.

sanctuariesPhoto credit: Jennifer Krogh

Orphans at the sanctuary live in groups much as they would in the wild. This setting allows for organic social development and learning, and can provide researchers insights into a young wild chimpanzee’s growth. In addition, researchers are able to observe the chimpanzees without impacting the subjects.

Tchimpounga hosts several research groups studying the evolutionary links between humans and chimpanzees. Even though we share approximately 98% of our DNA with chimps, there are several important differences ranging from the physical – for example, humans are bipedal while chimpanzees are quadrupeds – to the cognitive. JGI’s research partners, the Max Planck Institute and Duke University, use non-invasive research methods to study the links between human and chimpanzee development. They make behavioural observations of young chimpanzees, bonobos, and human children and pose challenges designed to test individual ability to problem solve. By comparing the results of these tests, researchers can help shed light on the evolution of human social cognition.

Researchers also examine the importance of individual personalities and emotional responses in problem solving abilities. Does one individual’s sharp temper or level headedness enhance or reduce their ability to solve an issue? This is a relatively uncharted territory within non human primate cognitive science.

sanctuaries2Photo credit: JGI

Past research performed at Tchimpounga has also included genetic studies. DNA collected from fecal samples was analysed to perform paternity tests and to determine the sub-species structure of chimpanzee across Africa. Conservationists wondered if the genetic difference between sub-species was great enough to warrant separate conservation plans; so far, no data has shown that the sub-species are significantly different.