Also see: Today's Top Stories
Presented online in association with Microsoft
Africa Chimp Expert Extends "Path Goodall Blazed"
In Gombe Stream National Park, a chimpanzee sanctuary in western Tanzania, one of the primate mothers, Gremlin, was trying to wean her twins.
Things weren't going well. The kids wouldn't cooperate. As soon as one calmed down, the other acted up. Mom had reached the end of her rope.
"She looked up with the most haggard look you could ever imagine," said primatologist Elizabeth Vinson Lonsdorf, recalling the scene she observed on videotape. "[It was] much like the looks I've seen on parents whose kids are pitching a fit in the middle of a department store."
Read the full story >>
Chimpanzee expert Elizabeth Vinson Lonsdorf (left), pictured with Jane Goodall, has been named one of the National Geographic Society Emerging Explorers. The program is supported by Microsoft.
Every fall for the past three years, Lonsdorf has traveled to Gombe to study the behavior of the ebullient chimpanzees. As director of field conservation at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, Lonsdorf focuses her research on tool use and infant development. She continues to be amazed by the similarity in traits between the primates and humans.
"The most fun I have is watching mother chimpanzees interact with their kids," Lonsdorf said. "The behaviors are so strikingly similar to what we see in humans. Play, fear, tantrums, whining, testing boundariesall are present in chimp and human kids."
Nestled on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, Gombe is the location of primatologist Jane Goodall's famous chimpanzee research project.
Goodall, who arrived in the tiny and isolated park in 1960, rocked the scientific world in the 1960s with the discovery that chimpanzees make and use tools. Previously, only humans had been thought to use tools. More to the point, tool use had been cited as a key behavior separating humans and animals.
In a later, groundbreaking discovery, scientists found that tooluse practices represent different chimpanzee cultures. That is: Different groups use tools in different ways. Now, Lonsdorf is the first researcher to study how these cultures were developed and passed on in a community.
"I have always been interested in animal learning and tool use," the 29-year-old North Carolina native said. "Ever since I first had kittens, I've been fascinated by watching young animals grow up and learn their way in the world."
Her research focuses on "termite fishing," the chimpanzees' practice of modifying a piece of vegetation into a flexible tool and poking it into a termite mound. The termites defend themselves against the intruder by attaching to the tool, at which point the chimp slowly withdraws the tool and eats the attached termites.
Preliminary analysis shows that young chimpanzees take many years to develop the skill, and may use a combination of observational learning and trial and error.
On one visit to Gombe, Lonsdorf saw Glitter, one of Gremlin's twins, successfully fish out a termite with a tool at the tender age of two and a half.
"She put out the tool, looked quite suprised that there was a termite on it, didn't seem to know quite what to do with it, and so cupped it to her chest so it would [wouldn't] get away before she ate it," Lonsdorf recalled. "I was so shocked to see such a young, tiny chimp termite fishing that I almost fell off the rock I was standing on."
Survival of the Chimps
As an undergraduate biology and psychology student at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, Lonsdorf studied foraging skills in the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), a highly endangered and shy Madagascan lemur that also fishes grubs and larvae out of tree branches, but without using tools.
Summer internships took Lonsdorf to Hawaii and Florida to study how whales and dolphins process information.
But she had always loved chimpanzees, and jumped at the opportunity to study the primates as a graduate student at the Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies at the University of Minnesota. Lansdorf got her Ph.D. in June 2003.
She now collaborates with the Goodall Center for Primate Studies on research and management strategies to ensure the long-term survival of the Gombe chimpanzee population.
"By understanding the complexity of animal behaviors, we can begin to better appreciate and want to protect the diversity of life on this planet," she said.
"By studying chimpanzees, we can gain insight into what the behavior of our hominid ancestors might have been like," she added.
New technology is enabling Lonsdorf to gain information that Jane Goodall could not get when she started her research.
"With video, you can capture everything and you can go back and reanalyze later," she said. "Say I'm studying termite fishing and recording data on a notepad. At the time of the study, I was not interested in whether they used their left hands or their right hands, so I didn't record it. Later, if I become interested in handedness, I'm out of luck, the data is lost forever. That's not the case with video."
Lonsdorf may be extending Jane Goodall's research into the next generation, but don't call her the next Goodall.
"No one can go out there and replicate what she did in the 1960s as a young woman out on her own in the forest," Lonsdorf said. "All we can do is continue to work on the path that she blazed."