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Chimps in Uganda: Two weeks and counting….

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Photo: Maureen McCarthy

Photo: Maureen McCarthy

In a mere two weeks, I’ll head back to Uganda for a year to collect data for my PhD thesis. For one year, I’ll collect data on chimpanzees in forest fragments, small patches of forest that remain amid a sea of human-altered landscape. These are not your Discovery Channel-variety chimpanzees. They do not live beneath a lush rainforest canopy. They cannot be followed at close range by researchers in khaki pants. They refuse to be photographed by excited tourists with long telephoto lenses.

Instead, they eke out an existence in small remnant forest patches, sometimes stealing food from their human neighbors, darting traffic along busy dirt roads, or interrupting village conversations with their choruses of calls.

Sugar cane harvesters watch as chimpanzees cross the road to a sugar cane field. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Sugar cane harvesters watch as chimpanzees cross the road to a sugar cane field. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

I was first introduced to these chimpanzees in 2007. As a volunteer field assistant for a PhD student (two years before beginning my own path toward a PhD), I was assigned to collect data on chimpanzees in a small forest patch. Though I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when going to Uganda for the first time, I knew chimpanzees. I had studied them for my master’s thesis. Granted, the chimpanzees who supplied my master’s thesis data at Central Washington University had been raised by humans and used American Sign Language, but how different could these Ugandan chimpanzees really be?

As it turns out, they were very different indeed. They ate a very different diet than my captive chimpanzee friends, used some very different gestures to communicate, and seemed to live rather elusive lives. It was an altogether drastically different lifestyle than that of the chimpanzees I’d come to know.

Frustratingly, there were many unanswered questions about their lives. How exactly did they survive in this small forest fragment? How did their lives compare to those of their brothers and sisters in large, expansive forests? How long could they continue to live in this habitat?

Though a few researchers and organizations have attempted to answer some of these questions, there is still much work to be done. Indeed, most studies of free-living chimpanzees have been conducted at a handful of long-term field sites in protected areas, like Jane Goodall’s famous chimpanzees of Gombe National Park, Tanzania.

In two short months, however, I’ll have the opportunity to help find some answers about this population of understudied Ugandan forest fragment chimpanzees, which may measure up to several hundred. Unfortunately, they are not the only members of their species to live in an increasingly deforested habitat. Though chimpanzees have traditionally lived across a broad swath of equatorial Africa, they have become more and more isolated to smaller areas of degraded and threatened habitats throughout this geographic range. Habitat destruction, along with the bushmeat trade (the consumption of animals like chimpanzees for their meat), is a primary threat to the survival of endangered chimpanzees. Their struggles are palpable and growing.

It is, then, with great anticipation and a little anxiety that I’ve been planning this extended fieldtrip halfway around the world. Though this will mark my fourth trip to Uganda—I’ve been back a couple times to collect pilot data as a PhD student—I’m still not an expert. Now, though, I’ve learned to embrace my ignorance and expect the unexpected. You never know what you might find, which is what’s so thrilling about science (and life). I can’t wait to share what I learn with you.

Maureen McCarthy About the Author: Maureen McCarthy is a PhD Candidate in Integrative and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Southern California. She received her Master’s Degree in Experimental Psychology from Central Washington University, where she studied the gestural communication of chimpanzees who have acquired American Sign Language. She has more than a decade of experience studying captive and free-ranging primates. Maureen is currently in Uganda for a year to study the behavioral ecology and genetics of chimpanzees in fragmented forest habitats. Dr. Craig Stanford advises her research. This is Maureen’s fourth trip to Uganda—she’s been there several times before to volunteer as a research assistant and to collect pilot data for her dissertation. When she’s not busy collecting chimpanzee poop or getting malaria, Maureen enjoys birding, hiking, and photography. This research would not be possible without the generous support of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, the USC Jane Goodall Center, Primate Conservation, Inc., and the American Society of Primatologists. Follow on Twitter @mccarthymaureen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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