for National Geographic News
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.
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"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."
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.
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