Bustling Kampala and Unwanted Houseguests

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.


Traffic in Kampala. 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.


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









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.


Photo: Jack Lester.







Photo: Jack Lester.







Photo: Jack Lester.








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.


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








Brown widow spiders, as we learned, carry toxic venom like their cousin the black widow spider, but typically inject less venom per bite. 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.

Brown widow spider egg sacs. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.










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. 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.

This post was originally published at Scientific American

Home Sweet Home

After weeks spent packing, moving from our apartment, and traveling, my partner Jack and I have finally arrived in Uganda. Though it will still take some time to get settled into the place we’ll call home for the next year, a currently empty house in western Uganda will soon begin to feel familiar. The notion of a nice place to come home to at the end of a long day in the field sounds very appealing.

We humans are not the only ones to recognize home. For chimpanzees, home typically consists of an area of habitat called their home range, often measured as the area a chimpanzee community travels over a year. Home ranges vary in size across chimpanzee communities, ranging from under 10 km2 to over 50 km2. In eastern chimpanzees—the subspecies I study—females often favor certain parts of their community’s home range. This favored region, called a core area, is where a particular female will spend much of her time feeding and nesting, often with her offspring. Male chimpanzees, who remain in the community in which they were born through adulthood, come to know their mother’s core area from a young age. Murray and colleagues found that males at Gombe National Park, Tanzania continue to visit and forage in their mothers’ core areas even into adulthood, especially when solitary.  This suggests that particularly when food is scarce, these males reduce feeding competition and increase foraging efficiency by heading for the old familiar areas they know best.

What is home like for chimpanzees whose habitat is rapidly being altered, however? What space does a female carve out for herself and her offspring when she can scarcely escape the sound of chainsaws? What must it be like for an adult male to try to stop by for a bite to eat at an old favorite tree from childhood, only to find out the tree has been logged? Because habitat loss is a staggering issue for chimpanzees here in Uganda as well as elsewhere, these experiences must be very common. A recent article by numerous great ape researchers attests to the rapid rate of habitat loss for our ape cousins. Every day, chainsaws send favored nesting trees crashing to the ground, humans carve new and altered paths through fragile forests, and pit saws slice fruiting trees into timber planks.


A male chimpanzee crosses a road that bisects his forest home. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.









For the elders in the chimpanzee communities I study, I wonder how they perceive the changes over the course of their lives, which can last up to 50 years or more. Are they fearful when they awake to the sound of loggers nearby? Do they feel angry about the deterioration of their forest home? Unfortunately, we can never be certain how they feel. However, Dr. Matthew McLennan, my colleague and soon-to-be next-door neighbor in Uganda, co-authored a fascinating article with Dr. Catherine Hill on chimpanzee responses to researchers in Uganda. Their findings suggest these chimpanzees use numerous strategies—including aggression—for dealing with a habitat increasingly disturbed by human presence.

For the youngest chimpanzees, I wonder what the future holds. They have never known life in an undisturbed forest. Will they masterfully adapt to life in a mosaic habitat among their human neighbors? Or will the environmental pressures prove to be too much to handle? Though my research will hopefully help fill in some pieces of the puzzle, much uncertainty remains for our chimpanzee cousins who rely on something called “home” just as we do.

This post was originally published at Scientific American.