As part of the college’s Assessment Day, 28 Biology seniors took the ETS Major Field Test in Biology. Nationwide, 488 colleges and universities use this exam. Among the Augsburg students, four scored in the top 8% in the country. Congratulations to David Fowler, Anna Herauf, Anna Weitz and Ian Wunder on your outstanding performance!
Augsburg Presidential Scholar, Michelle Grafelman, was recently awarded the 2014 Vann Fellowship in Biomedical Ethics at The Mayo Clinic. As a summer fellow, she will work with physician and research mentors within Mayo’s Program in Professionalism and Ethics (Associate Director, Regent Paul Mueller) to examine issues such as end-of-life-care, genetic therapies, and patient consent, among others. The competitive applicant pool included students from five colleges in Minnesota, and the junior biology major and math minor was the sole in-state student selected.
Michelle plans to become a physician in the future and has built a solid academic foundation in her three years at Augsburg, earning a 4.0 GPA, participating in the Honors Program, and serving on the Pre-Med Club leadership team. Chosen last summer to be one of ten Sundquist Scholars to conduct STEM research on campus, Michelle is already an accomplished research assistant. Her work in biology, funded by the generous gift of Dean and Amy Sundquist and supervised by Professor Matt Beckman, has helped her develop important research skills within molecular biology and she is continuing this work through an academic-year research grant from Augsburg’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Graduate Opportunity. Michelle has taken advantage of the many opportunities a small campus provides, including leading the flute section in the Augsburg Concert Band and writing communion worship prayers for service each Wednesday. Please join us in congratulating Michelle on her fellowship!
Matt Beckman, an Assistant Professor in Biology, is first author on a paper entitled Stereoselective inhibition of serotonin transporters by antimalarial compounds that was recently published in Neurochemistry International, the journal of cellular and molecular neuroscience. The work began when Dr. Beckman was a Grass Fellow at the Marine Biological Labs in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1999, and was completed this fall through a collaboration with Dr. Keith Henry and his colleagues at the University of North Dakota. This paper provides the first detailed description of how antimalarial compounds interact with the serotonin transporter at the molecular level.
On Wednesday, September 25, four biology students presented research at two different events.
Michelle Grafelman presented her poster “The Role of the Hedgehog Gene in Daphnia magna Eye Development” at the University of Minnesota’s Developmental Biology Symposium.
At the North Star STEM Kickoff, Raesean Sneed, along with Biology professor Matthew Beckman were presenters on a undergraduate research panel. In addition, Raesean, Rico Barrozo and Promise Okeke presented posters describing their summer research experiences.
Michelle, Raesean and Rico all worked with Dr. Beckman this past summer. Promise was a summer research intern at John’s Hopkins University.
The 2013-14 academic year is now in full swing. Once again, enrollment in Biology courses is strong. More than 300 students are enrolled in biology courses this term, including a record 122 students in BIO 151 (Introductory Biology).
Among the start of the year highlights is City Service Day. Last Tuesday, three Biology faculty and nearly 100 first year Biology students participated in this Augsburg tradition. Students weeded a neighborhood Peace Garden, cleaned up trash at Powderhorn Park and assembled hygiene kits at the Health Commons. Augsburg’s commitment to service and to the city remains strong!
I’m now sitting in the Entebbe airport, waiting for my flight out of the country, back to the US. For my last post, I thought I would say something about the conservation status of chimpanzees in general, and that of chimpanzees at Ngogo in particular. This is an issue I think about often, as I’ve watched the precipitous decline of chimpanzee populations throughout equatorial Africa over the last decade or so that I’ve been studying this species, while at the same time witnessing the fairly dramatic increase in community size and density of my study community at Ngogo. Like virtually all the great apes, chimpanzees are considered endangered – certain populations, or “subspecies”, are considered critically endangered and will likely disappear within my lifetime. The fate of wild chimpanzees will be dictated in the near future by the effects of several interrelated factors: habitat loss (both legal and illegal), bushmeat hunting/poaching, and episodic disease outbreaks. Logging and mining operations have decimated chimpanzee habitats (the species is unlucky to inhabit areas rich in both precious hardwoods and rare minerals), especially since the discovery of oil in several African countries with large chimpanzee populations. While some of my work in the past has shown that low-intensity selective logging can be compatible with chimpanzee conservation, large-scale clear-cutting for commercial timber or mineral extraction certainly cannot. In many African countries in which timber operations have opened up access to forests inhabited by chimpanzees (and other primates), illegal bushmeat hunting, usually through the use of wire snares in which chimpanzees become entangled, has increased dramatically. There is a misperception among many in the western world, however, that the bushmeat “issue” is one that stems primarily from the need for local villagers in areas occupied by chimpanzees and other primates to obtain a steady source of protein. If this were the case, the problem could, in theory, be easily solved by providing alternative sources of protein to these populations. The truth, it turns out, is that the non-sustainable poaching of chimpanzees for bushmeat is largely driven by large commercial markets operating out of large, metropolitan areas, including some in the “developed world” (even the US). A large supply of bushmeat was recently confiscated, for example, at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, and not long before that at London’s Heathrow and New York’s JFK airports. The consumption of bushmeat is associated with cultural status in many African cultures, and wherever the diaspora of sub-Saharan African elite culture spreads, whether it be Nairobi or New York, there is likely to be an underground market for bushmeat in those areas. And, as long as that market exists, populations of chimpanzees and other unfortunately easily-caught primates will continue to decline. Finally, the disease issue. This is one that has only relatively recently emerged, largely because many of the diseases that currently decimate chimpanzee populations, primary among them the Ebola virus, only recently began to afflict chimpanzees (and humans, for that matter, who are as susceptible, if not more so, to Ebola as chimps). For as terrifying and dangerous a disease as Ebola is (with upwards of 95% mortality in some cases, it is among the most virulent of all known diseases afflicting primates), we know surprisingly little about it. For example, we think that its primary host is one of a number of species of fruit bat that live in the same forests as chimpanzees (and, in some cases, gorillas), and that apes become infected by using the feeding tree as a bat carrying the virus, but there is not really all that much evidence to strongly support this. What we do know is: 1) the virus is easily transmitted between humans and chimpanzees, primarily through contact with bodily fluids, and 2) once a chimpanzee in a particular population is infected, it spreads extremely rapidly and, as I just mentioned, has a very high mortality rate. Recent Ebola outbreaks have virtually destroyed otherwise thriving chimpanzee populations, for example the previously very large population in the Tai Forest in Côte d’Ivoire in far Western Africa. Ebola is almost single handedly responsible for giving western lowland gorillas the unenviable “Critically Endangered” designation on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species. But it is not just the scary, horrifyingly grim pathogens like Ebola that threaten the long-term viability of chimpanzee populations. Seemingly far less insidious diseases, such as simple upper respiratory tract infections, which may have little to no external manifestations in humans, can wreak havoc on a chimpanzee population in which individuals lack immune responses to such infections. In Gombe National Park, for example, where Jane Goodall’s famous study of chimpanzees was first initiated in the early 1960s and continues today, retrospective analysis of major mortality events in the chimpanzee population there showed that there was a very high probability that the deaths were caused by respiratory illnesses spread from humans to chimps. As researchers, we come into fairly close contact with our study animals, and we need to be cognizant of the fact that they can easily become infected by a simple cold virus that we may be carrying, and that such a virus can be much more dangerous to their health than to ours.
All of these factors are working in consort have led to a major decline in wild chimpanzee numbers over the last decade. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the chimpanzees at my study site, Ngogo, have not only avoided such decline but have positively thrived over this same period. When I first started studying chimpanzees at Ngogo in 2002, there were about 140 chimps there (already more than twice the size of the next largest community anyone knew of). Today there are almost 200, nearly 4 times the size of the next largest known community. This is astounding, considering what is happening to chimpanzees elsewhere. I look at the chimpanzee community at Ngogo with a sense of guarded optimism, however, for its “success” comes with some caveats. The forest at Ngogo has been relatively unaffected by resource extraction in the past, but massive reserves of oil were recently discovered in western Uganda and there is no reason to believe these reserves are not going to be exploited to their fullest extent, and any forest that must be cleared in the process will be considered collateral damage. Chimpanzees at Ngogo have not been directly targeted for bushmeat, largely because of a taboo that exists in the cultures of the local Batoro and Bakiga tribes that surround Kibale National Park against eating primates, but there is evidence that Congolese refugees fleeing civil war in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have moved into the area east of the Rwenzori Mountains, just outside Kibale, and have started poaching chimpanzees (no such taboo against eating primates exists in these cultures). The chimpanzees at Ngogo have not been affected by any major disease outbreaks in historical times, but Ebola outbreaks have hit several human populations not far outside of Kibale, and there is no reason to think that the virus cannot spread into the park (particularly if people poach and eat chimpanzees).
Given all that, I don’t want to end this blog on a pessimistic note. Despite all these caveats, Ngogo is still the best place on Earth to see and study chimpanzees. There is no other place in the world where you can hike into the forest and see upwards of a hundred chimpanzees in the same area. It is an experience I can’t adequately describe, except to say that I feel privileged to have the opportunity to witness such a scene. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I’m always happy to share photos and stories with anyone who’s interested, so once I’m back on campus feel free to track me down. I’ll be the one with the beard that looks like a chimp’s.
I have two short posts this time, one that might be somewhat informative and one that is completely inconsequential and should only be read by those with a desperate need to procrastinate.
Let’s start with the dumb post: I’m beginning to look and to smell like a chimp. I always seem to become aware of this around this time in a field season, when I have just a few more days in the forest before having to re-enter civilization. First, looking like a chimp – this is not much of a stretch for me. My beard always has a somewhat simian-esque quality about it, and now it’s been growing for far too long, as has my hair (I never shave or cut my hair when I’m in the field), so I’m truly entering Dr. Zaius/Planet of the Apes territory. Those of you lucky enough to see me within my first few days back in Minneapolis will get to see this spectacle in all its glory. People occasionally stop me on the streets of Kampala or Fort Portal after I’ve been in the forest for a long stretch of time and say, “Hello, Jesus” (one guy several years back seriously thought I WAS Jesus). As for the chimp smell: chimpanzees have a very distinctive musk – you can smell when they’re in the area – and it’s so pervasive that it remains on the vegetation that they come into contact with. So, if you’re following behind a big group of chimps, passing through the same thick vegetation that they’ve just passed through, well, you’re going to get a bit of chimp aroma on you. Because washing machines are rather difficult to come by in the forest, we re-use our field clothes for a good week or so before washing them, which gives the stench plenty of time to settle on our skin. And, man does that odor like to stick around! We do have “showers” here in camp, which consist of a little shack in which you can bring a pail of water to dump on yourself and, well, you get the idea. It really just sort of moves the dirt around rather than actually gets you clean. So, the chimp-ish smell tends to stay around until I can get access to a good, hot shower (one nice perk of having to go back through Kampala before leaving to go back to the US). Even then the smell seems to linger for a while. I always feel bad for the person sitting next to me on the flight from Entebbe to Amsterdam, and Amsterdam to the US. Those poor folks didn’t know that they were going to be getting occasional whiffs of Eau de troglodytes for 9 hours in a stuffy cabin with poor air circulation. That’s what you get for flying economy class!
OK, now on to the post with at least some substance to it. This one goes out to all you plant aficionados out there (I know there are some of you). I figured, since my primary objective this field season, and one of the primary objectives of my research for the next year or so, is to collect samples of plants fed on by chimps, to analyze their chemical properties and characterize their nutritional quality, I ought to say something about some of the plants in the forest here in Kibale. I mentioned in an earlier post that we are currently experiencing something of a bumper crop of Uvariopsis congensis fruit in this part of the forest. Uvariopsis is a small tree, but it grows in extremely dense groves, with a dozen trees within just a few meters of one another, and chimps can easily move from one to another without having to come to the ground to travel. It is among the most abundant of all trees at the Ngogo site – rivaled only by one or two other species that, interestingly, chimps mostly ignore as food sources. During this particular fruiting event, essentially every Uvariopsis tree in the forest is fruiting (at least all of the trees that I’ve seen), and unlike most fruiting seasons, this one is lasting a LONG time. It’s been going strong for about a month and a half now, and is showing no signs of abating. So, this is a somewhat unusual event, something akin to what plant ecologists working in Dipterocarpaceae forests in Borneo or in oak forests in the eastern US would consider a “mast” fruiting event – virtually all individuals in an area producing fruit (and seed) at the same time. There have been some interesting occurrences that, I strongly believe, are linked to this “masting” event. For example, my old friends the bush pigs seem to be everywhere in the forest these days (not exactly the safest time to be wandering through the forest if you’re a researcher). On a few occasions, I’ve returned to camp in the evening having not obtained a particular plant sample I was hoping to get that day, and David (the only other researcher in camp now) would say something to the effect of, “oh, well tomorrow you should try going out to F/6.5, there’s a big Ficus natalensis out there with lots of fallen fruits”. So, first thing the next day I’d head out to F/6.5 to find the F. natalensis, only to find either a) bush pigs scarfing up all of the fruits on the forest floor, or b) absolutely no fruit on the ground put plenty of pig dung. This has happened a few times and, despite being quite frustrating (it’s not pleasant hiking an hour or more to a particular tree without finding anything there), it’s kind of interesting. Plant ecologists working in Indonesian Borneo, where trees of the Dipterocarpaceae family produce seed during “masting” events once every several years, have proposed that this seed production strategy is an evolutionary response to the threat of seed predation. In particular, in that region, during a dipterocarp masting event, bearded pigs (the primary “predators” of dipterocarp seeds) move into the area in droves. However, the dipterocarp community produces such an overwhelming abundance of seeds that fall to the forest floor, that even with this huge influx of bearded pig vacuum cleaners sucking up all the seeds they can possibly eat, there are still plenty of seeds left intact after the pigs become satiated. Could something similar be going on in the case of Uvariopsis at Ngogo? Produce a huge amount of fruit, much of which will fall to the forest floor, which in turn will draw migratory fruit-eaters (like bush pigs) into the area to feed, and “hope” that they become satiated before all seeds have been gobbled up? Of course, many of the seeds will pass through the gut of the pigs completely intact, and therefore be dispersed. One other intriguing piece of evidence here is that, for the first time that I can remember, there is so much Uvariopsis fruit sitting on the forest floor that much of it is decaying and molding (so obviously not being eaten by any vertebrates). I’ve been working in this forest for over 10 years, and there are still interesting events like this that continue to surprise me.
So, there you have it: one post that might have taught you something, and one that was surely a waste of your time. I guess the two even each other out.
I’m sometimes asked “what’s it like to follow chimpanzees through the forest?”, and the completely unsatisfying answer is that it depends entirely on which chimp, or group of chimps, I’m following. Tracking a big group (and, with close to 200 chimpanzees in the Ngogo community, groups can be REALLY big) full of adult males is a completely different experience than following, say, a mother and her young infant or juvenile. Big groups of adult males do what big groups of adult males of most species will do – they display for females by trying to beat each other up, they run all over the place making lots of noise along the way, they may take a nap or two at some point, then resume beating each other up. Spending the day in the forest with a mother and her young offspring, however, is often nothing like this testosterone-driven frenzy at all.
For example, the other day I went out to collect some fruits from a large fig tree that the chimps like to pig out on (stop me if I’m using too much technical jargon). When I got to the tree, I unfortunately didn’t find too many figs to collect, but I did happen upon a very old adult female chimpanzee named Marlene, plus two of her kids (Hayden, who is a young adolescent male who still hangs around with mom quite a bit, and a juvenile female whose name escapes me). Side note about naming conventions for the chimpanzees at Ngogo: I should have mentioned this in an earlier post. My former PhD advisor, David Watts, who co-directs the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project, is a jazz nut, so from the beginning most of the male chimpanzees (who were “habituated”, or became accustomed to and accepted, the presence of humans earlier than most of the females) in the study community were given names of jazz musicians – Miles, Monk, Coltraine, Ellington, Brubeck, Mingus, Dexter, etc. There are some exceptions, most of which are classical composers’ names (my all-time favorite chimp, Stravinsky, who sadly went up to chimp heaven a few years ago, for example). The same jazz-themed naming convention was started with the females (e.g., Fitzgerald, Lady Day, Ma Rainey), but David started running short on female jazz musician names. He then turned to another of his interests, opera, and started naming female chimps after opera singers (e.g., Fleming), but this also proved to be a dead end. So, “new” females (in the process of habituating a chimpanzee community, it can take many years to find and habituate all of the members of the community, particularly the females) were given names of famous actresses, and that convention has stuck – Jolie, Sigourney, Meryl, Sarandon, Bacall, Kidman, Halle (Berry), etc.
Which brings me back to Marlene, named for the actress Marlene Dietrich. She’s been around for a long time and is one of the most “successful” mothers in the Ngogo community (with “success” defined in terms of surviving offspring). Unlike the boisterous displays and calls that accompany a large group of adult males, and perhaps also an unfortunate estrus female who happens to be the object of the males’ affections that day, mothers and their dependent offspring often travel in very small parties (or alone in their little family group) and barely make a peep. Such was the case with Marlene and her kids. When I first heard them rustling through a grove of Uvariopsis trees (mmmm…. sugar), I just assumed, without looking up into the canopy, that it must be a small group of monkeys, maybe mangabeys or redtails, because they were treading so quietly and softly through the trees. But then I glanced up into the tree to see a little juvenile female chimp staring me down. She stared at me for a good 20 minutes – I stared at her for about 5 before I got tired of the staring contest. Then I heard a crashing sound coming from the Uvariopsis tree next to the one the little juvenile was in, and suddenly, out popped the not-so-photogenic mug of Marlene. They’d been there the whole time, quietly going about their business of getting hopped up on Uvariopsis sugar that I’d almost walked right past them.
It’s often suggested that the reason females, and in particular those with dependent offspring, travel in relatively small groups has to do with feeding competition: the larger the group, the more mouths there are to feed, and females who must devote energy to nourish a growing fetus or to nurse a young infant simply can’t afford to spend time in large parties, in which their share of the food in a given feeding patch will be relatively lower than if they were to forage in smaller parties or alone. Whatever the reason, mothers and their kids will often avoid the big groups, where most of the “action” is, and will also generally remain quiet, perhaps to keep their feeding patch from being seized upon by others who may be in the area. All this makes for a very different chimpanzee-viewing experience. In previous posts I’ve discussed following big groups of males as they charged around, displayed loudly, ran through thick vegetation, caught and killed red colobus monkeys, etc. By contrast, this day spent with Marlene and her little ones was relatively peaceful, almost calming. Females with young kids often don’t like coming down to the ground when a researcher is around, so Marlene was content to spend most of the day traveling through the continuous canopy of the Uvariopsis grove, with her little juvenile in tow. The two played for a while, Marlene tickling the juvenile and vice versa (and this really is tickling as we know it, and is truly “play”, as we know it… if you’ve ever seen it you know it can’t be described in any other way). At one point, Marlene even played a game in which she spit some big Uvariopsis seeds at her little juvenile. The kid tried spitting back, but she obviously didn’t have the chops for it quite yet. They continued on like this for hours, eating, playing, and resting in makeshift “day nests” (chimps make nests out of branches in which they sleep each night, but occasionally will make a nest in the middle of the day if they really need a serious snooze). The little kid continued to try goading me into a staring contest. Hayden, Marlene’s adolescent male, had no problems with me and eventually came down to the ground, but to my surprise he didn’t move off to join the big boys. Instead, he stayed with his mom and sister, content to nap on the ground while they fed and played up in the trees. It was nice to spend the day with this happy little family, an old mother, her young daughter, and older son (who’s still obviously a momma’s boy). Not exactly the same experience as tearing through thick vegetation at full speed while big adult males yell and scream and beat each other up, while in search for monkey meat. So, what’s it like following chimpanzees through the forest? Well, it depends….
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.
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!