Even before I wrote my last entry on the Congo, I had arrived at my next research destination: Uganda! On January 31st, I flew into Entebbe International Airport, right on the shores of Lake Victoria. My flight came in at night, so I didn’t get a chance to see the lake at all unfortunately. I’m sure I’ll have a chance to spend a bit of time there, however, as I’ll be in Uganda for almost all of 2012.
Although I arrived in Uganda at the end of January, preparations began for this trip before I left the DRC. Back when I first regained internet access in Kindu I found a week-old message in my inbox from Sonya Kahlenberg, my Primate Behavior professor from Bates. She said she had been discussing a new chimpanzee project with Richard Wrangham—her PhD advisor—and he was interested in hiring someone to head the project for about a year. Sonya asked me if I was interested, and suggested I contact Richard to pursue the opportunity. Of course I was interested, and I did pursue the opportunity, and after returning to the U.S. I went up to Cambridge, MA to meet Richard to convey my interest in person. And, a month-and-a-half later, I was back on anti-malarials and on my way to East Africa.
The project I’m working on is an investigation of chimpanzee tooth eruption. When I say tooth eruption, I’m referring to when the tooth breaks the gumline, just like in humans. Like you might expect, our teeth are very similar to chimpanzee teeth, and we share the same dental formula, or the number and position of incisors, canines, premolars, and molars: separating the mouth into quadrants, we all have 2 incisors, 1 canine, 2 premolars, and 3 molars, making 32 teeth in a full-grown adult (most of us will only have 28 teeth, though, as we usually get our 3rd molars—wisdom teeth—removed). Anyway, back to the study, for me it’s very exciting to work on because it’s novel: it will be the first test of primate-wide associations between dental [progression] and life history variables within populations of living wild individuals (taken from Tanya Smith and Zarin Machanda’s grant proposal). In other words, knowing the age at which certain teeth erupt can be correlated with certain significant events of a chimpanzee’s development, such as age at weaning and social and sexual maturation. Knowing which ages these events happen is valuable from an evolutionary standpoint, as we can make solid comparisons between humans and non-human primates.
Humans are primates, and we evolved from other (extinct) animals that chimpanzees, also primates, evolved from as well: humans and chimpanzees, therefore, share a common evolutionary ancestor. Although humans are so closely related to chimpanzees, certain stages of our development take much longer than in chimpanzees. We don’t really know what led to these changes, or when they happened. Like I mentioned earlier, dental progression can be correlated to these developmental events; since teeth survive as fossils, we can actually analyze differences in dental progression, and therefore the developmental events they correlate to, through the fossil record. At the end of the day, all of this depends on figuring out when a tooth erupts in a live chimpanzee. What is the best way we know to do this? To take a picture of it. That’s my main job: taking pictures of chimps’ teeth, focusing on individuals of a certain age at a certain time.
Why do we need to do this with wild chimpanzees, since it would be logistically and practically easier to use captive chimpanzees? Because captive chimpanzees can be behaviorally and physiologically different from wild chimpanzees, and captive tooth emergence rates are currently believed to be different from their wild counterparts. In fact, that’s another proposed benefit of this study: to compare captive rates to wild rates, particularly since the literature on this topic is somewhat inconsistent. Why do we have to examine live chimps, since it would be easier to analyze dead individuals we find in the wild? Mostly because a dead individual was likely to have been more stressed, which could cause a delay in development and therefore skew an accurate interpretation.
So where am I anyway? I’m not tracking chimps next to the
airport. I’m working at Kibale National Park, in the southwestern region of Uganda, also close to the Rwenzori Mountains (which I’m excited about visiting and hiking at some point). Richard is a co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, based at the Makerere University Biological Field Station (MUBFS). That’s where I’m living: in a duplex at the field station in the national park. Here’s a link to the Kibale Chimpanzee Project’s website: kibalechimpanzees.wordpress.com, which I highly recommend visiting to see more of what the long-term research study is all about and to read some great articles. There are also a few header images taken by Ronan Donovan, a conservation photographer who was my predecessor for this work in 2011. I can only hope by the end of the year my own pictures will look half as good.
Much of the research highlighted on this site follows the Kanyawara chimpanzee community, one of a few groups of chimpanzees living in Kibale Forest. It’s composed of a little more than 50 individuals that keep to the same general area, their “home range,” of the forest. There is another community of chimps about 15km away from Kanyawara, the Ngogo population, which I may be spending some time at as well. The Ngogo area of Kibale Forest is much richer in food than Kanyawara, so the chimp community can easily reach a larger size: there are over 150 individuals there. Of all those individuals, about 50 are juveniles which are in the proper age range for me to photograph. The determining factor in how much time I spend in Ngogo is the degree of habituation of the chimps; for behavioral chimp studies, and to track them through the forest at all, chimps need to demonstrate a high level of habituation to human presence, theoretically allowing people to be around them without affecting their natural behavior. For me, it’s important the chimps be habituated, because I need to be in close proximity to get clear pictures. If the chimps at Ngogo don’t let me get close enough to them, I won’t be able to continue working there.
In the first week I was living at MUBFS, I wasn’t allowed to go “chimping” because of Kanyawara’s standard quarantine protocol: since humans and chimps are so similar genetically, many diseases can be transmitted across species, and researchers need to be definitively sickness-free before tracking them. So, I had a lot of time to start getting used to the camera I was given: a Canon EOS 7D, with a 70-200mm f/2.8L lens. There are always lots of monkeys and birds around I can photograph, some of which I’ve included in the first set of pictures I’ve posted.
I also got a chance to go to the Rwenzoris for a day with Emily—she’s setting up some new camps in the mountain forests where there are chimpanzees, where her workers are now cutting transects for future surveys. At about 70km south of Fort Portal, the drive should have only taken around and hour and a half, but the copious number of speed bumps on the road made the trip about double that. Next time I make that drive, I’m going to count them; there have to be at least 50. Since the trip was just for a day, I didn’t get to do any hiking, but my already high level of interest in visiting the mountains was certainly augmented! We drove to a town at the base of the mountains called Kasese, which was near enough to Queen Elizabeth National Park that Emily just drove me there for the heck of it. We didn’t technically enter the park: like in the Serengeti, the main road just cuts right through. Again, just taste of the area, but I’m sure I’ll be going back!
I put up my first set of photos from Uganda—mostly general things around the field station. I haven’t uploaded any chimp photos yet, but I will with the next post.
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