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Chimps in Uganda: Bustling Kampala and Unwanted Houseguests


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Traffic in Kampala. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Traffic in Kampala. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

The first days of a research trip follow a characteristic pattern among the field researchers I know. The story goes something like this. Step 1: Arrive in capital city. Step 2: Run necessary errands as quickly as possible. Step 3: Leave capital city to get to field site. Step 4: Avoid capital city like the plague thereafter for as long as possible. (Note: Steps 2 and 3 are often accompanied by some amount of frustration. Do not expect things to go as planned.)

This pattern is typical because most field researchers enjoy being, well, in the field. The hassles of city life are a necessary obstacle to getting to the fun stuff.

A technician removes Lucy’s temporary window. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

A technician removes Lucy’s temporary window. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

So went our week. We spent most of it in Kampala, where we made necessary vehicle repairs, purchased supplies, and visited government offices. Chief among our list of vehicle repairs was finding a permanent replacement for a temporary window that had been glued onto Lucy (as my Land Cruiser is known). I got Lucy during my previous trip to Uganda last year, and she’s been in the care of friends during the intervening months since I left. We found her in good condition upon return, with the exception of this new window, which served to temporarily replace its shattered predecessor.

We learned that the old window had been broken by a rock sent flying as someone cut grass nearby. Replacing the glass with a more permanent fix required meeting the automotive glass technicians in downtown Kampala. We met them on the street, where they emerged from a bustling, crowded sidewalk with the new window in hand. They proceeded to extract the old replacement window and install the new one right there on the sidewalk as passersby looked on. In about a half hour, they had completed the job admirably.

Photo: Jack Lester.

Photo: Jack Lester.

By the time we had completed this and various other tasks, we were ready to get out of the city. Our drive back to our home base of Hoima was a welcome change of pace from Kampala’s bustling crowds. As we made our way through the lush rolling hills and villages, we were at times awestruck by Uganda’s beauty.

Back in Hoima, we’ve been settling in for a few days. We’ve ordered furniture from a local carpenter, who will make some modest furnishings for our house.

Before we can fully move in, though, we had to evict some unwanted tenants. Jack discovered an aggressive spider in the garage. Upon closer inspection, he found that it resembled a black widow spider. It actually turned out to be a close relative, the brown widow spider, Latrodectus geometricus. Brown widow spiders, as we learned, carry toxic venom like their cousin the black widow spider, but typically inject less venom per bite.

Photo: Jack Lester.

Photo: Jack Lester.

We found two adult females with several egg sacs in the garage. After removing them, we decided to inspect our neighbor Matt’s garage. Two more females, several more egg sacs.

Now we’re on alert! If you think you’re safe from these tiny terrors as long as you avoid East Africa, think again. They are increasingly common throughout much of the southern U.S., including California. I can’t say I’ve ever had them as such close neighbors before, though.

Photo: Jack Lester.

Photo: Jack Lester.

When we’re not evicting spiders, I’m also searching for a new field assistant. My prior field assistant, Henry, was great at his job but found other employment since my last trip here and can no longer continue working for me. I’m very pleased that he found a job while I was away, but he will be sorely missed.

A brown widow spider in the garage. Photo: Jack Lester.

A brown widow spider in the garage. Photo: Jack Lester.

The search is on for a suitable replacement who can fill Henry’s figuratively big but literally small shoes. (He is a very small man, you see.) I hope to share good field assistant news soon. In the meantime, keep an eye out for spiders. I know I will.

Brown widow spider egg sacs. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Brown widow spider egg sacs. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Previously in this series:

Chimps in Uganda: Two weeks and counting….
Chimps in Uganda: “These are a few of my favorite things”
Chimps in Uganda: Home Sweet Home

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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  1. 1. Mythusmage 2:43 pm 10/9/2012

    Has anybody looked into the urban wildlife of Kampala?

    Link to this

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