Reading the Clues

A trusted Ugandan colleague called one afternoon to share the news that he had found someone whom I might hire as a field assistant. Jack and I met with our colleague and the prospective hire, Nick, an hour later in town. Nick is a young forestry college graduate with knowledge of local trees and an eagerness that was immediately evident. I offered him the job and our work began soon after.

Upon venturing into the field a couple days later, we found our first and most familiar sign of chimpanzee presence: nests. For the most part, chimpanzees build a new nest each night. These large, leafy beds are constructed by bending branches into a rounded, cushiony shape. The interwoven leaves and branches create a kind of mattress high in the trees. Nest construction is a skill that takes some time to learn, so young chimpanzees sleep in their mothers’ nests until they are old enough to reliably build their own. Nests of the same age are often found together, evidence that a party, or small group, of chimpanzees slept near each other.

A chimpanzee nest. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.










The view from inside a chimpanzee nest. Photo: Jack Lester.









Finding nests is vital to my research project. Nests provide crucial information regarding where the chimpanzees have been spending their time. This is important because the chimpanzees I study are unhabituated, meaning they are not accustomed to researchers following them closely. Unhabituated chimpanzees typically flee when people come near, as is the case with my study subjects. For this reason, we must rely primarily on indirect evidence rather than direct observations to better understand their behavior patterns. Luckily, the chimpanzees leave ample clues for us. After we find their nests, we often encounter a second critical clue: their dung. Chimpanzee dung can provide a wealth of information. It can provide insights into what the chimpanzees are eating, how long ago they’ve been in a certain area, and much more. My study relies on these little treasure troves to provide chimpanzee DNA. I will later analyze the DNA to answer various questions about the genetics and behavior of these chimpanzees.

I won’t lie. Collecting chimpanzee dung doesn’t quite fit the romantic, Jane Goodall-in-khaki-shorts image of primatology research that I held some years ago. I remember when my first primate behavior professor, Michele Goldsmith, described studying mountain gorillas in Uganda. As she explained it, seeing gorillas was all well and good, but finding their dung was the real thrill. Like me, she relied on dung samples to provide critical data for her research. Though I knew she was joking a bit, I also couldn’t imagine how finding dung could be so exciting. Now I get it. The highlight of my day often comes when I stumble upon a fresh pile of chimpanzee dung. Nick listens patiently as I excitedly wax on about the intricacies of poo and demonstrate proper collection technique, then sift through remnants just to see what fascinating discoveries might await us inside our gooey gift from the chimpanzees. I’m certain he must think we’re a bit crazy, especially because direct observations of the chimpanzees have been scarce so far.

Scarce–that is–until yesterday, when we were fortunate enough to have both ample chimpanzee observations and fresh samples to collect. Though we maintained a long distance from the chimpanzees so as not to disturb them, we watched them groom and feed for some time before entering an area they had passed through to see what they left behind. In the process, we found several nests, dung samples, and feeding sites. Data-rich days like these make up for the occasional long days of walking with little or no evidence that chimpanzees aren’t just some figment of our imaginations. For now, I’ll remain satisfied that they exist while continuing to wonder about the many unresolved mysteries of their fascinating lives in these small islands of forest.

Chimpanzee mother and infant. Photo: Jack Lester.








This post was originally published at Scientific American.

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.

“These are a few of my favorite things”

I’m busy packing up and getting ready for Uganda this week. As I’ve increasingly turned my attention toward my upcoming trip, I’ve been thinking of all the things I’m anticipating. Because I’ve studied in Uganda a few times before, I have developed a long list of favorites, but I’ve chosen just a few to share with you. I’ll no doubt indulge in more detail about each of these in the coming months, so please stay tuned.

Friendship: The Ugandans I’ve met are among the kindest, friendliest, and most selfless people I have ever encountered. I’ve made friends who define the term “strong work ethic,” whose tireless optimism inspires me, and whose innovation and sense of humor never cease to amaze.

A dear friend, Prossy, and her baby Sophie. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.











Nature: Uganda has offered some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Though the national parks are beautiful, one need not visit them to encounter nature on display. The beauty of nature is in the smallest details, sometimes in the most unexpected places, if you take a moment to look.

Beauty in grand form: an elephant at Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Photo: Jack Lester.








Beauty in the smallest details: a cassava leaf eater. Photo: Jack Lester.









Science: The experience of conducting field research can be described in many ways. At the best times, it’s thrilling, uplifting, and jaw-droppingly beautiful. At the worst times, it’s frustrating, exhausting, and hope-draining. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling both—sometimes in the same day. No matter what it is, though, it cannot be described as boring.

Surveying a forest fragment with the help of colleagues. Photo: Jack Lester.









Food: Oh, the food! Do you want to taste the creamiest avocados and the sweetest pineapples? Would you like to experience what cocoa tastes like straight from the pod? How about the taste of jackfruit, the world’s largest (and my personal favorite) tree fruit? Come visit Uganda!

A jackfruit tree. Photo: Jack Lester.










Immersion: One of my favorite experiences about traveling is the feeling of being completely out of my element and having no idea what is going on. This may seem like a strange assertion, but it’s true. There are few times in adult life when we must completely submit to an utter lack of control and understanding—with the exception of going to the DMV, perhaps. To feel overwhelmed, delighted, and immersed in a completely foreign experience is to experience the joy of traveling. I hope never to lose this.

A sense of wonder is one of the greatest joys of traveling. At Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.











This post was originally published at Scientific American

How Technology Can Save Great Apes: A Pragmatist’s Top Ten List

As a PhD Candidate studying chimpanzees in fragmented forests, I’ve often brainstormed with like-minded friends about potential solutions to threats facing great apes. Technology is usually interwoven into these potential solutions. Though there are no perfect answers, there are promising possibilities. Here’s my top ten list of realistic ways technology can be used to save great apes.

1. #GreatApeConservation #SocialMedia: The significance of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter cannot be overstated. Increasing awareness brings greater personal investment in conservation. For example, this tragic story about an orangutan was shared perhaps thousands of times through social media in recent weeks.

2. Call Me Maybe: Cell phones are ubiquitous in great ape range countries (see this recent article for more on their influence in Africa). They can assist education and information sharing, while text donation programs can be used for fundraising, as with this current effort by the Jane Goodall Institute and collaborators.

3. Engaging Youth: Interactive games, as well as HD and 3D movies, engage children and bring great apes to life onscreen. The recent movies Born to Be Wild and Chimpanzee are great examples. The earlier children learn about conservation issues, the more invested they may be later in life.

Educational outreach with secondary school children in Uganda. Photo: Brittany Fallon.








4. Drones of a Different Feather: Small drones have been tested for use in conservation. See this article explaining how.

5. Molecular Advances: Recent advances in molecular primatology greatly assist in monitoring great ape populations. Genetic data yield population size estimates and provide vital information on gene flow. Indeed, my PhD thesis relies on such data. Here’s an example of one application.

Collecting and labeling a chimpanzee fecal sample for genetic analysis. Photo: Jack Lester.









6. Great Primate-Saving (GPS) Technology: Though GPS actually stands for Global Positioning System, it is a critical tool for scientists monitoring great ape populations. In addition, already-existing smartphone apps allow for geo-tagging the locations of celebrities. This same innovation may allow people in great ape range countries to geo-tag ape sightings, thereby helping conservationists track populations.

7. Ape Trek: The Next Generation: Scientists also have a myriad of other tools at their disposal to facilitate research. From digital data recorders to laser range finders, primatologists can collect data quickly and efficiently nowadays. I can almost hear my advisor saying, “You know, back when I was in grad school, we had to…”

8. Better Alternatives: Primary great ape threats include bushmeat hunting and habitat destruction. Technologically advanced alternatives can abate these threats, however. For example, although palm oil production has led to the large-scale destruction of orangutan habitat, palm oil alternatives are possible.

9. Medical Advances: The U.S. is in the difficult position of supporting ape conservation while still performing invasive biomedical research on chimpanzees. Advances in medicine may soon make invasive research completely obsolete, however. See this great story on the development of microchips that mimic human organs. (Cool, huh?!)

10.  Ecotourism Made Easy: Online travel reservations and the modern ease of travel make it simpler than ever to visit great ape habitats. This is critical since ecotourism, if managed well, is one of the best and most realistic options for helping conserve great ape populations.

Two weeks and counting…

In a mere two weeks, I’ll head back to Uganda for a year to collect data for my PhD thesis. For one year, I’ll collect data on chimpanzees in forest fragments, small patches of forest that remain amid a sea of human-altered landscape. These are not your Discovery Channel-variety chimpanzees. They do not live beneath a lush rainforest canopy. They cannot be followed at close range by researchers in khaki pants. They refuse to be photographed by excited tourists with long telephoto lenses. Instead, they eke out an existence in small remnant forest patches, sometimes stealing food from their human neighbors, darting traffic along busy dirt roads, or interrupting village conversations with their choruses of calls.

Sugar cane harvesters watch as chimpanzees cross the road to a sugar cane field. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

I was first introduced to these chimpanzees in 2007. As a volunteer field assistant for a PhD student (two years before beginning my own path toward a PhD), I was assigned to collect data on chimpanzees in a small forest patch. Though I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when going to Uganda for the first time, I knew chimpanzees. I had studied them for my master’s thesis. Granted, the chimpanzees who supplied my master’s thesis data at Central Washington University had been raised by humans and used American Sign Language, but how different could these Ugandan chimpanzees really be? As it turns out, they were very different indeed. They ate a very different diet than my captive chimpanzee friends, used some very different gestures to communicate, and seemed to live rather elusive lives. It was an altogether drastically different lifestyle than that of the chimpanzees I’d come to know. Frustratingly, there were many unanswered questions about their lives. How exactly did they survive in this small forest fragment? How did their lives compare to those of their brothers and sisters in large, expansive forests? How long could they continue to live in this habitat?

Though a few researchers and organizations have attempted to answer some of these questions, there is still much work to be done. Indeed, most studies of free-living chimpanzees have been conducted at a handful of long-term field sites in protected areas, like Jane Goodall’s famous chimpanzees of Gombe National Park, Tanzania. In two short weeks, however, I’ll have the opportunity to help find some answers about this population of understudied Ugandan forest fragment chimpanzees, which may measure up to several hundred. Unfortunately, they are not the only members of their species to live in an increasingly deforested habitat. Though chimpanzees have traditionally lived across a broad swath of equatorial Africa, they have become more and more isolated to smaller areas of degraded and threatened habitats throughout this geographic range. Habitat destruction, along with the bushmeat trade (the consumption of animals like chimpanzees for their meat), is a primary threat to the survival of endangered chimpanzees. Their struggles are palpable and growing.

It is, then, with great anticipation and a little anxiety that I’ve been planning this extended fieldtrip halfway around the world. Though this will mark my fourth trip to Uganda—I’ve been back a couple times to collect pilot data as a PhD student—I’m still not an expert. Now, though, I’ve learned to embrace my ignorance and expect the unexpected. You never know what you might find, which is what’s so thrilling about science (and life). I can’t wait to share what I learn with you.

This post was originally published at Scientific American