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Chimps in Uganda: Travels In and Out of the Forest

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


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Humans are very poorly adapted to a chimpanzee lifestyle. I am reminded of this on a nearly daily basis as we trace the locations where chimpanzees have been hanging out. I regularly trip over vines and tree roots, slip off logs, and slide down muddy hillsides. I have tumbled to the ground no less than eight times in the past week. In between bouts of tripping, stumbling, and cursing, I find myself marveling at the strength and agility required to live in this forest habitat.

Chimpanzees are remarkably agile and well adapted to live in a variety of habitats in equatorial Africa. They are gifted climbers, and they also travel swiftly and gracefully on the ground as quadrupeds. In addition, they have staggering strength. A classic series of studies by John Bauman in the 1920’s demonstrated that chimpanzees have more than four times the strength of a human. While it is a difficult feat to measure this accurately, there is no doubt that chimpanzees are very strong indeed. Anthropologist Alan Walker described their strength as follows:

“On one occasion, I was minding my own business while walking along a forest trail when I nearly bumped into an adult male chimpanzee that was doing the same. The frightened animal swung at a nearby tree buttress root, making a resonating booming sound. After this display, the animal raced up the trunk and proceeded to shake branches high above me. When my heart rate returned to normal, I tried to imitate the chimpanzee by banging on the buttress as hard as I could. I could produce only a laughably feeble sound. Thus it was that I came to appreciate firsthand what many people know anecdotally—that great apes are immensely strong.”

(Note: If you happen to encounter an adult male chimpanzee in the forest, I would not advocate Walker’s response as your first recourse! Still, you get the idea.)

As I’ve struggled to maintain my clumsy upright posture, I’ve snapped a few photos of chimpanzees being their graceful selves in the trees.

A juvenile chimpanzee hangs out while foraging. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

A juvenile chimpanzee hangs out while foraging. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

A juvenile chimpanzee swings between branches. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

A juvenile chimpanzee swings between branches. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

An adult male chimpanzee moves along a branch. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

An adult male chimpanzee moves along a branch. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Outside the forest, traveling hasn’t been much easier lately. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had multiple vehicle problems. First, our beloved vehicle, Lucy, broke down just after a visit with friends in the next district over. It was the sort of malfunction that involved broken bits of metal falling onto the road and oil leaking out, leaving a disastrous Hansel-and-Gretel trail of vehicle mayhem behind. We had to call a tow truck to pull Lucy from a small dirt road to the nearest town. It’s not uncommon for trucks here to have short, snappy sayings painted onto the front of them. Our tow truck bore the slogan “Dangerous Toweling”. Somehow, this didn’t inspire my confidence. Nonetheless, we made it back to town without incident.

Lucy gets a tow into town. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Lucy gets a tow into town. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

It looked like we might be without a research vehicle for a week or two. Luckily, we were able to have our mechanic in Kampala send spare parts via bus the very next day. Jack put his mechanical skills to work and replaced the broken parts in no time. Thankfully, what looked like a serious setback was remedied in less than 24 hours.

Next, just days later, we got two flat tires. Unfortunately, both tires went flat on same day. The back right tire went flat, so we tested the spare in preparation to make a swap. The spare was also flat. Our portable compressor saved the day until we arrived back in town to get both tires repaired. These two tires are among the eight or so flats we’ve had in the past couple months. The good news is that I’ve never been so good at repairing flats. I have to admit that it might be time to invest in some new tires, though. Until then, we’ll keep chugging along, over forest tree roots and dirt road potholes alike.

Jack and field assistant Nick repair a flat tire. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

Jack and field assistant Nick repair a flat tire. 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
Chimps in Uganda: Bustling Kampala and Unwanted Houseguests
Chimps in Uganda: Reading the Clues
Chimps in Uganda: Lessons from Washoe

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. American Muse 5:48 am 12/20/2012

    Love your reports. Thanks.

    Link to this

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