More notes from Uganda


I’ve been working like crazy trying to get as many plant samples collected and preserved as possible in my short time in the field this season. However, I’m also trying to take some time to follow the chimps – to see what they’re feeding on, primarily, and to record the location of feeding sites so we can get a better sense of how they use their home range to forage. I went out yesterday to collect some fruit samples (more Uvariopsis fruit, which is about as abundant as I’ve ever seen it, so much so that perfectly good fruits have dropped to the ground and are molding before anything has had a chance to eat them). I had a pretty good sample by about 9:00 AM, then started hearing a few chimps calling not too far away, so I decided to go see who was there and what they were doing. Finding chimps once they’ve started calling is fairly easy, it’s only difficult if they’re being quiet. So, it didn’t take me long to find Bartok, Hare, and Wayne feeding on some Uvariopsis just up the ridge from where I was collecting.

A brief introduction to a couple of these characters: if you’ve seen the DisneyNature movie “Chimpanzee”, you’ve seen Hare. A film crew came to Ngogo to shoot a large portion of the footage for that film, and Hare ended up playing a prominent role as, unfortunately, the lead “villain”, given the name “Scar” in the film. He’s actually a perfectly nice chimp who just happens to have a large scar across his upper lip. Bartok, a long-time ally of Hare’s, is a pretty old male who was, for many years, the undisputed alpha male of the Ngogo community. He’s not especially big or strong, but he is very smart: he made friends with some big dudes (including Hare) who supported him in aggressive encounters with other males. Bartok was recently deposed, however, by the much bigger and stronger Miles, who will likely remain alpha until he becomes old and feeble. After an alpha male is dethroned, he will often remained perfectly well engrained in the social fabric of the community – he’ll be around whenever there’s action (like a hunt or a border patrol), he’ll still try to push around the little guys, etc. More rarely, though, a former alpha will become somewhat solitary and will, in essence, sit on the sidelines. This seems to be Bartok’s response to being overthrown, much to my surprise.  When I was here doing my dissertation research, when Bartok was still the king, there was rarely a day I would go without seeing him, now it seems he frequently “drops out” of a party when there’s a big group of males about to go do something exciting. Such was the case on this day, as you’ll see below. Another interesting note about Bartok: he seemed to remember me. I am often asked if chimps can distinguish different researchers as individuals, as we distinguish different chimps as individuals, and whether they respond differently to different humans. I’m convinced that they are intelligent enough to distinguish me from another researcher here, but I also am becoming convinced that they can remember individual researchers even after a long time has passed since we last saw them. I mentioned that I saw Bartok almost every day when I was here several years ago doing my dissertation research. He was probably my most frequent male “focal” animal. Over the course about 4 years of closely following him and observing him, at some point Bartok started to produce a little “head bobbing” gesture whenever he would first see me in the morning. It was probably something about my baseball cap that he didn’t like (I would always, and still do, wear a Twins cap into the forest, and some chimps seem to respond strangely to baseball caps), but in any case it isn’t something he did with other researchers, so far as I’m aware. Well, when I happened upon him the other day, sure enough, after giving me a look for a few seconds as if trying to remember who I was, he gave me a quick head-bob and went about his business. It was as if he was saying, “oh, you again…”

So, anyway, these three were lounging around for a while, grooming one another a lot (one of the ways we surmise that, for example, Bartok and Hare are allies is that they spend a lot of time grooming one another). They then started hearing calls to the north. Lots of calls. Enough calls that they decided they ought to respond. This is what chimpanzee “parties” do in order to maintain contact: they call loudly back and forth and bang on the buttresses of large trees, as a way of communicating their location to other parties. These noises travel far enough that distant parties can remain, to a certain extent, cohesive simply through vocal communication. Well, all of this commotion got the attention of another powerful player in the Ngogo community, named Morton, who was apparently very close by. Morton is the clear #2 (beta) male in the community – he’s big, aggressive, and still pretty young. We’ve known for years that he was going to move quickly up the dominance hierarchy, and if it weren’t for Miles he would undoubtedly be #1 right now. Upon hearing Bartok, Hare, and Wayne calling, Morton came running down the ridge, hair erect (male chimps do this when performing a charging display, to make themselves look even more impressive), breaking saplings, and screaming like crazy. The three other males, each being lower-ranked than Morton, gave submission calls (which sound like little grunts) and submissive gestures, which essentially bows. It was strange for me to see Bartok making these submissive responses, as I had only ever seen him as the alpha male, the one intimidating the others. As if to drive home the point that he was now higher ranking than Bartok, Morton ran over to the old guy and stuck his rear end in Bartok’s face, in essence saying “groom me, or else…”. So they sat and groomed for a while, mostly Bartok doing the grooming and Morton receiving (this is generally the way it works – the higher ranking individual will receive most of the grooming, whereas the lower ranking individual will do most of the grooming). Then the group started hearing the calls to the north again. This time, with Morton as part of the group, the boys decided to move on and join the obviously large group to the north. All of them, that is, except for Bartok. As I mentioned, Bartok seems to have gone into something of a retirement. He seems content to hang back and let the others go join the big groups where all the action is. So, rather than follow Morton and the others, who were surely off to go hunt for colobus monkeys (I found out that evening that they caught a couple of them), I decided to stay back with my old pal Bartok. I was curious to see what he was going to do.

Well, in short, not much. We sat around together for about an hour, he slept and I tried to keep from falling asleep. But soon something very strange happened. I heard a loud crashing sound coming from the dense vegetation just to the side of the trail I was on (I could tell that Bartok heard it, too, because he woke from his nap). I didn’t think anything of it, since I assumed it was just some of the chimps that had been calling from the north charging in to display around the old ex-president. But then, I saw Bartok get up on his hind limbs (chimps are very awkward when walking bipedal, and don’t do so very often) and he got this terrified, deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. That worried me… suddenly, from out of the thick vegetation, two bush pigs came running at full speed past the trail right between me and Bartok. Now, that may not sound so bad, but in fact bush pigs are, after elephants, the most dangerous large animal in the forest. Chimps occasionally hunt for their piglets, and so adults often target chimps. They don’t intentionally target humans, but if you happen to be a researcher closely following a chimp who is targeted, well, you’ve seen better days. They’re powerful enough to kill a human. Both Bartok and I seemed to have the same reaction to the running bush pigs, and for a moment we glanced at each other with the same dazed look, as if to say “what the @&*# just happened???”. He looked at me for a few seconds just to make sure I wasn’t going to try to charge him like the bush pigs did, then gave me another little head bob, and went back to sleep. After another couple hours, I left him there for the evening, to continue enjoying his retirement in peace. It was an interesting day, and one I won’t forget, for many reasons.


Greetings from Uganda

Until mid-June, Biology professor Kevin Potts will be guest blogging from his research field site in the Kibale National Park in Uganda. His first entry can be found below.





Kampala is mostly the same as the last time I was here 6 years ago – not a place where I really like spending any time, but a necessary stopover for picking up permits, etc. However, I have noticed some small but interesting differences since I was last here. For example, the air is not nearly as polluted, which isn’t really saying much considering the deplorable condition it was once in. Also, there are not nearly as many people on the street staring at me and/or saying “mzungu” (the term literally refers to the British, but has been co-opted to refer to any non-sub-Saharan African). I guess, at least in Kampala, the novelty of having white folks around is starting to wear off as Uganda becomes a more popular tourist destination.

One interesting change is that the currency is different since my last trip: the denominations are the same but the images on the bills have changed, and the old currency is no longer accepted. I learned this the hard way by trying to pay the cab driver, who was bringing me from the Entebbe airport to Kampala, with the few old shillings that I had from my last trip, and the guy looked at me like I was trying to pay him in rupees (I may as well have been). Fortunately I was actually able to get money out of an ATM (another new innovation since my last trip).

As we were moving through the busiest, most congested, most chaotic (and hazardous) roundabout in Kampala, I told the cab driver that I used to take boda bodas (little motorbikes named for the sound they make: “boda-boda-boda”) around the city, including through that roundabout, and when I think back on it I realize how stupid and dangerous that was. His response was priceless: something to the effect of, “well, if you made it out of that alive, then God must have intended for you to do something very special with your life.” The Ugandan perspective is a very interesting one sometimes. Another example, also from the cab driver: he was asking me about Obama, and what people in the US thought about him (people in Central and East Africa adore him, and think of him as one of their own). I said that he is loved and at least respected by many, if not the majority, of Americans, but that many people in the country dislike him, and many truly hate him. The cab driver responded by saying, “well, even Jesus, not everyone liked him… in fact, many people hated him. So, maybe it’s not so important that some Americans hate Obama. We love him”

Ugandans listen to some of the worst of American music. Perhaps the most egregious offense is their deep, abiding love for the music of Kenny G. It’s everywhere in Kampala! However, the other day I heard on the radio a Kenny G song that was made even more awful in that it was used as the background music for the Canadian rapper Snow’s “Informer”. Those of you reading this who don’t know these references, consider yourself lucky. Either one on its own is a hideous listening experience, but the two mixed together is just… disturbing. Ugandans also love power ballads by artists like Celine Dion, but there’s really no need to go into that.

From Kampala to Fort Portal, and Fort Portal to Kibale National Park:

The ride is much smoother than it used to be: what used to be a 7 hour adventure on pot-hole laden roads, some paved some not, took us about 5 hours this time, and the entire drive was paved. Those 5 hours, by the way, include time we had to spend at the police station in Mubende (a small town midway between Kampala and Fort Portal) filling out a traffic accident report, because a boda boda driver ran into the side of our car – it wasn’t much of an accident, just a few scratches on the side of the car, but still big enough to be reported. What happened was, the boda driver pulled out in front of us, nicked the back of the car, then tried to flee the scene of the accident by cutting off the road and driving through some poor guy’s crop fields. My driver jumped out of the car, ran into the crop field, grabbed the guy (who had fallen off of his boda), put the boda into the trunk of the car, then drove it to the police station. You can’t make this stuff up.

We made it to Fort Portal soon after this. Fort Portal is the largest town in close proximity to Kibale National Park, so this is where we do most of our shopping for food and supplies. It’s kind of a dump, and I don’t like to spend any more time there than absolutely necessary. However, on this trip, I was dropped off by the guy who drove me from Kampala and had some time to kill while waiting for my ride into Kibale National Park, where I do my research. So, I took the opportunity to wander around town a bit and see some old friends I hadn’t talked to in a long time. Now I can safely avoid Fort Portal for the rest of my trip!

To get to my field site, which is in the middle, and therefore relatively less-accessible, part of the National Park requires an additional 2 hour drive out of Fort Portal on would charitably be called roads. The road from Fort Portal that encircles Kibale is full of potholes big enough to swallow an unsuspecting boda, and is not paved, but is at least a true road. In order to get to Ngogo, the site where I do my research, we turn off of this “main” road onto one that is simply a narrow path cut through patches of elephant grass and dense forest. Fortunately, it had been dry enough that the truck didn’t get stuck in the thick mud that builds up along the road in the rainy season, and we made it in to camp just before dark.

Highlights of my first few days in the field:

Despite being seriously jet-lagged, I decided I wanted to get right out into the forest and see the chimps on my first day back at Ngogo. My primary objective during this field season is to collect and preserve samples of plants that chimpanzees are eating, so that they can be analyzed for their nutritional content. My previous work at this site, however, has involved direct observations of the behavior of known individual chimpanzees. So, on my first day out, I wasn’t going to worry about plant collection, I just wanted to see my old non-human buddies again (it had been a while). Following chimpanzees can be frustrating, because all the members of a given “community” (i.e., social group) are rarely, if ever, together at the same time. Instead, smaller subgroups break off from the larger group to travel and forage together. So, you may be lucky and find a big party of chimpanzees right away in the morning and follow them throughout the day. Or, you may wander the forest aimlessly all day and not find any chimps. But today, on my first day back, my old friends did not disappoint. The forest at Ngogo is currently experiencing an overabundant crop of Uvariopsis congensis fruit. This is one of the chimps’ favorite foods, it’s full of sugars, and it’s found everywhere in the forest. So, when there’s a good Uvariopsis crop, there’s likely to be lots of chimps easily found. That was the case on this day. After only about a half hour of walking through the forest we heard chimps calling loudly, then someone screaming and crying. We ran down into a valley to see what was going on, and found about a dozen chimps chasing each other around, including one big male furiously chasing after another male (the one who was screaming and crying). Turns out that the big male instigating the fight against the screamer was Jackson, a young guy I know from years ago as just a puny little kid who got beat up by the big boys. Apparently, a few years ago, Jackson had a massive growth spurt (which, according to the literature, is not supposed to happen in chimpanzees!), and suddenly became this imposing figure who aggressively forced himself up to number 3 in the dominance hierarchy. Hard to believe.

I felt bad for Monk, the male Jackson was chasing – I have a deep fondness for Monk because he was the first chimpanzee I ever saw in the wild, when I was a lowly first-year graduate student. That was over a decade ago now, but he still looks and acts the same, and still doesn’t mind humans following him in the least bit. The fight between Jackson and Monk had ended with Monk suffering a massive gash along his right wrist, which was obviously causing him a lot of pain (he was licking the wound for a while). It was kind of a sad way to start the day. But, you’d be surprised how resilient chimpanzees can be, as you’ll see later. After about an hour of gorging on Uvariopsis and then napping, the group of a dozen or so chimps that we were following moved on and met up with another group of about 20 chimps. This group included some of my old favorites – including Miles, the undisputed alpha male of the community; Berg, the chimp with the least fear of humans (he has been known to slap researchers, including myself, on occasion); and Sutherland, Berg’s mother, who came charging in with an infant clinging to her belly, a juvenile riding on her back, and a young adolescent following behind her (she’s quite the matriarch). Now this big group of close to 40 chimps decided that they had eaten enough sugar for a while and wanted some protein – and what better protein source than monkey meat! As they continued to travel north in a fairly cohesive group, somewhat quietly and quickly, without eating anything, we could tell that they were looking to hunt monkeys. Chimpanzees do this from time to time, especially when there are plenty of other food sources available to them in the forest (e.g., Uvariopsis fruit) and they can therefore afford to expend the time and energy needed to seek out monkeys. They soon came upon a huge group of red colobus monkeys (i.e., dumb, somewhat lazy leaf eating primates), and, to our surprise, it was Monk, injured hand and all, who decided to instigate the hunt. Even with all the pain he must have been feeling he just couldn’t resist the lure of delicious colobus meat. He climbed up into the tree and chased a large adult male colobus, who fell from the tree into the waiting arms of Mwea, a very old chimp who is probably too arthritic to have climbed the tree himself, and so was lucky to have been standing directly beneath a falling colobus monkey! Others, including Miles, Mingus, Dexter, and Jackson, took part in the hunt, and by the end they had caught a total of 6 monkeys. That’s a pretty good day at the office for a chimpanzee! Much of the rest of the day was taken up with individuals begging for scraps of meat from the hunters and others who were in possession of the carcasses. My former PhD advisor, who still runs the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project and who was the only other one with me and the chimps that day, studies (among other things) how meat obtained from a hunt is allocated among individuals who may or may not have been involved in the hunt. Needless to say it was a fun, data-filled day for him. For me, it was a nice chance to see my old friends in action once again.

My next day in the field, I decided to go collect some plant samples. Because, let’s be honest, plants aren’t all that exciting (haha, insert Ann Impullitti joke here), I couldn’t convince any of the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project field assistants to go with me. So, I went out on my own into the forest, which is not unusual (even when following chimps, because they often break up into smaller parties, we frequently end up in the forest by ourselves).  Not too far along my route into the forest I started noticing signs that something strange was going on: in particular, every primate in the forest around me was incessantly calling loudly back and forth and generally making much more of a commotion than they generally do (I passed a group of blue monkeys, red-tail monkeys, and mangabeys foraging together, and the males of each species were giving out alarm calls; at the same time I passed by a big group of baboons and the adult male barked at me and ran away). Not long after, I started seeing very large footprints and very large, fibrous dung piles. Oh good, I thought, elephants are in the area! Now, if I was smart (insert Kevin Potts joke here) I would have turned around and gone back to camp, or at least moved to a different part of the forest. But, my time here this field season is limited and I wanted to make sure to get the samples I needed, so I kept going, hoping that the elephants had moved through earlier and would be gone. Well, they weren’t gone, exactly. I did manage to pick a few fruits to get the sample that I needed, but then saw a big bull elephant and what looked to be some small females down in the valley below me. Fortunately, elephants will generally run away once they hear humans approaching, and they don’t move very well up steep slopes anyway, so I decided to make as much noise as possible by shaking a bunch of saplings, then running in the opposite direction. I heard the bull let out a big threat wallow, but I looked back and he wasn’t charging… Crisis averted! So, two days in the field and I’ve seen chimps kill 6 colobus monkeys and almost ran right into a friendly little bull elephant and his group of females. Not a bad start to a field season!