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Danger and Obsession
'I love my work so much I feel like the luckiest person to ever have walked the face of this planet.' Jo Thompson is an ordinary thirty-eighty-ear-old American woman who feels compelled to live an extraordinary African life. She studies a very rare and only recently discovered ape, the bonobo, sometimes called the pygmy chimpanzee, though in fact they are not chimpanzees. In August 1997, Thompson flew from Ohio to Kinshasa, the capital city of the politically unstable Democratic Republic of the Congo. After hours of permit checking and bureaucracy she met up with white American missionaries, whose jeep collected her and supplies of food and medicine and then drove to the one-horse town of Bandundu, where she boarded a small light aircraft. From her aeroplane seat Thompson looked down at the vast canopy of tropical foliage and the winding Sankuru river below. The forests of the Congo basin are the least explored in Africa. As the forest thinned out a little patches of open grassland could be seen in between the wooded areas; this is bonobo country.
Jo Thompson was happy to leave her husband behind in Georgetown, Ohio, and did not expect to see him again for at least a year. Life in the Congo is hard for the indigenous people, many of whom would love to swap roles with Thompson and live in her comfortable home in Georgetown, where clean drinking water pours out of taps, refrigerators keep food fresh and death from infectious diseases has been almost totally eradicated. But Thompson has fallen in love with a group of wild bonobos, andnothing can keep her away from them. The hardship of the primitive lifestyle will not dissuade her from her calling; in fact, Thompson finds the simple and very basic way of life an added attraction. Her overwhelming commitment to the animals is typical of women primatologists.
Thompson works alone, the only Westerner involved with the Lukuru Wildlife Research Project that she established at Yasa. But, she says, 'I have not experienced loneliness yet. I like being by myself. I embrace the local Kindengese people and they have accepted me. They call me "Mama Tofuku," which means, "the bonobos' mother". My marriage and my choice to work completely alone for long periods of time is quite unique compared to other researchers. My husband has never been to Africa and doesn't intend to go, yet he is a critical component in my ability to do this work. He manages all my personal and professional affairs in my long absences. He loves me very much and believes in what I do. He also sees that this vocation is my life.' Thompson adds that she has decided not to have children as there are too many people in the world.
Jo Thompson's love of apes can be traced back to when she was five. She requested that her parents take her and her friends to the Ohio Zoo for her birthday party, and she still has a treasured photograph of herself taken that day, standing outside the chimpanzee cage. Today the Ohio Zoo has the finest exhibit and collection of captive bonobos anywhere in the world and the zoo's staff are committed to the species. Thompson has retained a close relationship with the zoo and today it helps to fund her research.
Working with primates can be hazardous and field work in itself offers manifold dangers. Primatologists have caught malaria carried by mosquitoes, been killed and eaten by lions, chased by elephants, and gored by buffalo. In addition, women researchers have been raped not only by local tribesmen but also by orang-utans.
Yet many women are reluctant to leave their study sites and are able to endure much hardship in exchange for the autonomy of the life of a field researcher. Canadian Biruté Galdikas, who famously studies the only Asian great ape, the orang-utan, has certainly experienced more than her fair share of physical hardship. Much of her study area in Borneo is swamp, and daily Galdikas would wade, up to her neck, through cold, black water infested with blood-sucking leeches. She contracted a fungal infection because of being wet so much of the time, and she also permanently damaged her neck as she strained her head backwards to look up into the forest canopy for elusive, solitary, tree-living orang-utans. One primatologist told me that men belong in cities and women belong in jungles. Most of the long-term field studies have, in fact, been undertaken by women who form tangible bonds with their primates. By comparison, men, generally, are suspiciously hasty to finish their theses and return to the safe, man-made environments of university tenure. Men do not seem to develop the same emotional attachment to the individual animals they study and it is easier for them to leave particular animals or species behind.
A number of different women scientists have told me that studying the social behaviour of primates is like watching a TV soap opera. They become emotionally involved with the animals' daily lives and fascinated by the animals' families the quarrels, the reconciliations, the shifts in individual status, the births and the deaths though because evolution writes this timeless script happy endings are not obligatory.
Within the mammalian order of primates there are just over three hundred different species, one hundred and thirty of those species are critically endangered. Primates are separated into two suborders, the prosimii and the anthropoidea. The prosimii include the lower primates such as the lemurs, lorises, aye-aye, angwantibos, pottos, galagos and the tarsier. The anthropoidea contain the higher primates, the monkeys, apes, and humans. Non-human primates inhabit tropical and sub-tropical climates. Monkeys are geographically classified; species found living in Africa and Asia are known as Old World monkeys, including macaque, baboon, colobus and vervet species and monkeys living in South and Central America are known as New World monkeys, including howlers, capuchins, marmosets and tamarins. There are no native contemporary species of primate in Australia, North America or Europe.
There are three sub-groups within the hominoidea super-family: the lesser (smaller) apes, the gibbons and the siamangs; the great apes, the chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla and orang-utan; and the hominid family in which humans are the only living member, all other hominids being now extinct. At a glance one can see apes are bigger than monkeys, and unlike monkeys apes have no tail. There are nine species of lesser apes, found in India, through South-East Asia and down as far as the Indonesian island of Java. The gibbons and siamangs have hairless bottoms and walk bipedally if they come down from the trees. There are two distinct species of gorilla that divide into five sub-species, they are isolated from each other and all reside in Central West Africa. The four sub-species of chimpanzee are geographically more widely spread than gorillas. The chimpanzee sub-species are the pale-faced chimpanzee of West Africa, the black-faced chimpanzee of Central Africa, the newly recognised Pan troglodytes vellerosus from Nigeria, and the smaller, long-haired chimpanzee of East Africa. As far as we know there are no sub-species of bonobo and the species is found in only one isolated area of Central Africa. There are two distinct species of orang-utan, Asia's only great ape, the Bornean and the Sumatran. Genetic information is suggesting the two may be as different from each other as chimps are from gorillas. There are three sub-species of the Bornean orang-utan. The Sumatran orang-utan is slightly smaller and has longer and redder hair than its Bornean counterpart.
Primates inhabit varied environments, from the cold, lush, dense forests of the mountain gorilla to the arid, open spaces inhabited by the savannah baboon. They have many behavioural and physical attributes in common, such as a basic dental pattern, but there is also much diversity in morphology and ethology. One way to unite all primates is to acknowledge the evolutionary fact that all living primates originate from a common ancestor.
Sixty-five million years ago, during the Palaeocene epoch of the Tertiary period, a small, probably terrestrial, shrew-like insectivore lived in the forests of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Discovered in 1990, Altiatlasius was an adaptable survivor of the Cretaceous climatic catastrophe that claimed the dinosaurs and many other mammals. Ancestral placental mammals had to compete for food with other insectivores, such as reptiles and birds. As these species were predominately diurnal it is likely our first ancestors were nocturnal. As the first primates were insectivores and nocturnal, smell would have been a more important sense than vision. These creatures were probably polygynous (single dominant male controls fertile females); foraging for food on the forest floor would have been a solitary affair; infants were probably hidden in a nest and not permanently carried. These were not gregarious, social creatures, as we think of primates today.
Today's prosimians are a living link to this earliest primate. Altiatlasius probably looked a little like the mouse lemur, Microcebus of Madagascar. Some 55 million years ago, during the Oligocene epoch, most diurnal prosimians were replaced by the fast developing higher primate species. Only a few nocturnal prosimians have managed to hang on to their ecological niche in isolated areas of Africa and Asia. But prosimians do dominate the island of Madagascar. The Malagasy prosimians were saved from extinction or radical adaptation when continental drift caused the 120-million-year-old Mozambique Channel. Allowed to evolve without much competition from other more aggressive primates, the Malagasy lemurs have not undergone the same ecological pressures that forced mainland African primates to adapt and change.
The new, more intelligent monkeys were mostly diurnal, arboreal and frugivorous. The change in diet from insects to fruit meant that monkeys were no longer solitary hunters but instead highly social and hierarchical animals that lived in trees. To help them survive predation from birds they grew in size and became organised as a cohesive group. Apes started to develop some 25 million years ago during the Miocene epoch. Fifteen million years ago there was an abundance of ape species and monkeys were in a minority. The origin of hominids can be traced to this time.
Officially, we are the only bipedal ape; bipedalism evolved in our ancestors between 10 and 5 million years ago. Two million years ago there were a number of bipedal hominid species; some were robust and some were gracile, some belonged to the genus Australopithecus and some to the genus Homo. Classification of hominid fossils often causes controversy amongst palaeontologists. From the fossil record the earliest human relative is Ramapithecus (an ancestor of the orang-utan). From the discovery of 8- to 14-million-year-old fossilised fragments of jawbone, it is evident that Ramapithecus's diet consisted of tough food morsels, probably gathered by hand at ground level. This was the period when some primates left the trees, never to return. During the Pliocene, about 5 million to 1.5 million years ago, ape species were declining in numbers, and species of Old World monkeys increased. The Pleistocene, about 1.6 million to 10,000 years ago, witnessed the development of even more monkey species, the extinction of all other hominids and the arrival of anatomically modern humans. These early people migrated out of Africa and managed to successfully colonise the world.
Many of the physical (morphological) and behavioural (ethological) aspects that we take for granted in primates evolved from a life in the trees. Claws are not needed to swing through the trees, so they were replaced by nails (intermediate claw-like structures are still found amongst some lower primate species such as marmosets, the lorises). To assist swinging through trees the clavicle bone developed to support the muscles in the arm; a primate's shoulder socket is designed to allow swinging by one arm at a time. Large, forward-looking eyes are an adaptation of arboreality: the skull developed a bony socket to protect the improved eye, and good vision allows for agility along branches. To aid this coordinated dexterity an opposable thumb evolved, allowing primates to hold on. The development of opposability allowed primates to pick up objects for study and for defence, and to carry objects over a distance and make and use primitive tools.
Primates vary immensely in size, from the mouse lemur, which weighs as little as 60 g (2 oz), to the gorilla, exceeding 180 kg (400 lb) in the wild. Gestation periods also vary from 2 months in the mouse lemur to approximately 9 months in the gorilla. Longevity is difficult to estimate in wild animals owing to predation and disease, and captivity does not suit primates as they are sensitive to human disease and physically designed to range widely; however, some captive apes and monkeys have lived more than 45 years.
A large number of primate species exhibit sexual dimorphism. The males are usually physically larger than the females. Humans are sexually dimorphic, as are gorillas: the male is almost twice as big as the female. Styles of locomotion vary in primates. The brachiation (alternating arm swing) from branch to branch of gibbons is different from the tarsiers' leaping and clinging to tree trunks, which is different again from the terrestrial bipedalism that humans have adapted to. Primates are behaviourally and physically flexible and can use a mixture of the above, but for the most part they are dominated by quadrupedal (four-legged) locomotion. Most monkeys walk on the flat of their hands. Orang-utans walk on the side of their hands, and gorillas and chimps 'knuckle-walk', using the fists or knuckles. No primate is capable of flight or burrowing and few primates like water.
A much larger brain was needed to accommodate the new social lifestyle, improved vision, motor skills and primitive technology. Proportionally, higher primates have the largest brains to body size of all mammals. The optic nerve from each eye runs to both halves of the brain, resulting in a superimposed image that allows depth perception. The sense of smell became less important to higher primates as their eyesight adapted. The emphasis on vision led to the growth of the brain's occipital lobe and the olfactory (smell) area of the brain's decrease in size. These new gregarious, coordinated animals with good, binocular vision and large brains were a highly successful adaptation.
Most primates are herbivorous (plant-eating) or frugivorous (fruit-eating), Some have specialised in a few plant species and other primates dine on a wide selection. Opportunistically primates will feed on insects, eggs, birds, reptiles and small mammals. Chimpanzees and baboons have been observed to hunt, kill and eat larger mammals, such as monkeys.
The sex life of primates affects much of their social behaviour. Primates (except for lemurs and lorises) do not have a breeding season, but instead the individual female has a regular menstrual cycle and a sex drive which peaks just before ovulation. Because female primates are frequently sexually receptive, male primates have to be constantly present and fertile females are rarely found alone. Male primates are potentially sexually active at all times. To be assured of reproductive success a monkey & ape mother can spend years caring for one infant (possibly twins) at a time. The male primate has a different strategy for reproductive success: he will attempt to mate with as many fertile females as possible.
Today all primates are social animals. Even the loris, which leads a predominantly solitary life, is social when given the opportunity. Generally, nocturnal primates are less gregarious than diurnal ones. All higher primates (monkeys, apes, and humans) are diurnal except for the owl monkey from South America. Social units of the higher, more gregarious primates vary in size, composition, and organisation, starting with the family unit consisting of an adult pair and their immature offspring, such as among gibbons, ranging up to large multimale aggregations numbering in the hundreds, such as among baboons.
Different communities within one species of primate will have their own culture and their own unique way of problem-solving. Separate communities within a species of primates, such as chimpanzees, will exhibit unique cultural behaviours akin to the cultural differences found between groups of people. For example, chimpanzees in East Africa have differences in patterns of grooming, opening and eating fruit and making and using tools from West African chimpanzees. Within a social group of primates there will be much variation of behaviour, with the youngest having a different strategy from older, high-ranking individuals. Throughout an individual primate's lifetime she will adapt to the changes in her social rank and exhibit various strategies. Much primate behaviour is learned and is acquired by the individual with age. As primates are long-lived animals they have extended, playful childhoods, the time when crucial information on survival within their group and within their environment is gathered. A mother teaches her infant most of what it needs to know and later peer-group pressure will dictate various behavioural strategies. Primatology has shown us that relatedness, or kin-bonding, is a very important part of primate life. Primates remain physically and emotionally close to their mothers for years.
The sophisticated ability of primates to learn, adapt and solve problems is an obvious indication of their high intelligence. Primates are highly vocal animals with calls that signify certain things. South American howler monkeys are the loudest animals on earth. When spoken language evolved in hominids is contentiously debated. Communication between non-human primates consists of a complex exchange of vocalisations, physical gestures and scent marking. Compared to other mammals, primates have a greater communicative repertoire. To express affection they hug, kiss, groom, mount, and lip-smack; if aggressive, they flash their eyes, yawn, hold eye contact, display and charge. Dominance and reciprocity have a place in primate society, For example, a high-status individual will be groomed by a low-status individual in exchange for protection from an aggressor. But the time invested in the reciprocity may not be even; two weeks of grooming may equal only two minutes of protection.
In terms of genetic similarities and biochemical similarities based on blood research, chimpanzees and bonobos are man's closest living relatives. Chimpanzees and bonobos are actually closer to humans than they are to gorillas, although all four ape species are within 1 per cent of each other. Since they share almost 99 per cent of their DNA with us, blood transfusions between chimpanzees, bonobos and humans are possible.
Primatology is the study of primates. Primatologists come from the worlds of biology, zoology, anthropology, sociology and psychology. A primatologist may work in a laboratory and design specific man-made experiments to test the intelligence of captive primates, or may choose field work and study the natural behaviour of wild primates. Over the last thirty years a great number of long-term field studies on wild primates have been set up. These long-term observational projects have revealed fascinating data on the importance of long-term social relationships between individual animals. Observation has shown that kin support each other in fights and share food.
Many primatologists today specialise in behavioural ecology, the study of wild primates in their natural habitat, a focus necessary for the conservation of a species. The ecologist will determine whether the species is diurnal or nocturnal, locate the food and water resources, quantity and quality of foods eaten. The scientist will ascertain numbers of individuals and species of predators, location of sleeping sites and interactions with other species including humans. Other primatologists might come from the school of sociobiology, concerning themselves with the genetically programmed behaviour of individual animals. Sociobiologists study either captive or wild populations of primates, and their initial assumption is that all behaviour is inherited. This is to say that all behaviour has evolved and adapted to help increase reproductive success. Sociobiologists argue passionately about how much behaviour is genetically innate and how much is learned and imitated. They also tend to assume that the primates they study are well adapted to their environment; but they may not be. The schools of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology have been born out of sociobiology.
These two sub-disciplines examine the development of behavioural and physical adaptations. Charles Darwin's books On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and The Descent of Man explain his theories of natural and sexual selection, and his theories form the theoretical basis a primatologist uses to understand evolution. The theory of natural selection states that certain advantageous traits in a species have come to dominate the species because the descendants of the first individual to exhibit that trait had a better chance of survival. Some traits are spread widely through a population because they are successful and have been selected for through countless generations. The earliest ancestor of the cheetah that could run as fast as a modern-day cheetah had a better chance of escaping predators and catching prey. Therefore it survived and its gene for speed was passed on to its young, who in turn passed on the gene for speed to their young; the cheetahs that could not run fast died out. Eventually, the most advantageous genes dominate a species. Genes are often linked to each other; it is possible that the gene for speed is also linked to the cheetah's gene for camouflage and its spotted coat evolved at the same time. If we look at primates, we say that our binocular vision and our opposable thumb have been naturally selected. Darwin believed that natural selection was a random process but that sexual selection is motivated by the subconscious desires of individual creatures.
Darwin's theory of sexual selection has gained momentum in primatology, evolutionary biology and psychology (and the study of animal behaviour in general) since the 1970s. Science and culture (particularly Freudian interpretations of sex) resisted Darwin's theories for years. The theory states that the sexes have two opposing strategies towards reproduction. Males actively and sometimes aggressively court females and females selectively choose males. Males look for certain traits in females, such as intelligence, high status and maternal abilities, while females look for traits such as intelligence, strength, stamina and high status in males. When individuals search out genes they consider good, they pass those good genes and the desire for those good genes on to their young. Over time, through natural selection these genes start to dominate. But they can also mutate, drift and link with other genes over generations and so the quest for a good gene is not failsafe.
In 'runaway' sexual selection, the desire for a trait has meant that the trait has grown larger, brighter, heavier or even louder and is now costing the animal much personal energy to sustain it. Runaway sexual selection explains the peacock's tail. A large, brightly coloured peacock's tail is calorifically expensive to keep in good working order; its existence tells the hen that the male is healthy and a good mating partner, so these males have more breeding opportunities than males with smaller tail feathers. But a large, cumbersome tail makes the bird more vulnerable to predatory attack. If the peacock's tail got much bigger, it could hinder the bird's basic survival rate and sexual selection would fall prey to natural selection. Sexual selection affects the social, behavioural, and cultural life of a species as well as its physical appearance. For years primatologists underestimated how courtship, sexual competition and mate choice profoundly affects the evolution of primates, including humans. The scientist uses non-human primates as models from which to extrapolate much about the evolution of human behaviour and the methods employed to study non-human primates will also be used to study humans.
Before field primatologists can start their research they must habituate a group of primates, which means locating and daily following a group of wild animals that are not used to humans. Over time the animals become accustomed to the scientist's presence. If a primatologist visits an established field site, the resident primates will be used to human observers and the scientist can get straight to work; if not, habituation may take months. Once habituation is achieved the observer must be able to recognise individual animals, which again takes time. Scientists carry photographs of the animals and sketches of individual's noses to help identify which primate they are watching.
Field primatologists have three main ways of collecting data. They use instantaneous sampling when studying certain behavioural patterns in a group of primates. In this method the scientist will have a strict timescale for observing the members of a group. For example, if the scientist wants to test how many naps are taken and for how long, during the day the scientist will perhaps observe each group member for one second every twenty minutes over a ten-hour period for three months. At the end of that period the scientist will have statistical data to show, for example, that infants and high-status individuals have had more and longer daytime naps than any other group member. Instantaneous sampling also allows a field primatologist to observe a number of different behaviours at one time.
A scientist can also use the method of 'focal animal sampling'. During a focal animal sample the scientist may decide to follow one or two particular animals for perhaps three hours or even the whole day, for a finite period such as a month. During the day the scientist will note down exactly what the animal does and in what order. Behavioural patterns soon emerge. The problem with this method is that some individual animals are more tolerant of follows than others. Today, ad libitum sampling is a method employed if the terrain is hard or the behaviour rare. Sometimes a constant follow is impossible and strict timings pointless. In the early days of field work, ad lib sampling was the most common method used. It allows scientists to jot down anything they are lucky enough to witness, but it does not allow scientific comparisons between groups of primates to be made. It can be used to supplement other methods of data collecting. For instance, while using an instantaneous sampling method, one might be surprised to see three low-status primates ally themselves against a high-status primate and take its food away. This unusual and significant behaviour could be sampled ad libitum.
It is possible to use experimentation in the field. A stuffed leopard was once placed near a group of chimps and the chimps' aggressive behaviour towards the predatory leopard was filmed and analysed. Primate calls have been recorded and played back to the same group of primates and their behaviour observed; again this experiment was filmed. Food resources have been reduced or highly desired foods introduced to test the behaviour of dominant individuals. More recently, DNA taken from hair follicles and from blood samples has been tested to show paternity. Blood samples are also used to test hormone levels and for parasitic infection. Plastic sheets are placed under night nests to catch the primates' first urine sample of the day, so that the scientist can evaluate oestrogen and testosterone levels. Once data have been collected and hypotheses tested, the scientists can begin to theorise over their findings.
In Britain, the main centres for primate study are St Andrew's, Stirling, Cambridge, Liverpool and London Universities. In America, the main centres are Wisconsin, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Atlanta Universities, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and the Yerkes Primate Research Center. Pisa University in Italy, the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and Senshu & Kyoto Universities in Japan also offer courses linked to primatology.
Primatology is the only area of science where women dominate men in sheer numbers. Women have spent years studying these extraordinary and frequently long-lived animals. Women run the primate conservation charities around the world and women undertake most of the scientific primate field research. Sixty-two per cent of members of the World Directory of Primatologists are women and 90 per cent of primate sanctuaries are run by women. At a recent meeting of the PSGB (Primate Society of Great Britain), of seventy-two members present, forty-five were women. Of five lectures given that day, only one was given by a man. It is not just the high-profile apes and monkeys that receive female attention; prosimians are just as popular. Alison Jolly is the world expert on the lemur. She first went to Madagascar in 1962 and to this day she remains committed to studying and conserving the matriarchal lemur.
A few women primatologists who are exponents of 1970s Californian feminism are very much opposed to women's dominance being acknowledged. They fear that if their science becomes known as a 'female vocation' their work will be diminished within the world of science, which is still male dominated and inherently chauvinistic. Some say that primatology is already regarded as a soft option simply because of the numbers of women the subject attracts.
But a young woman entering the 21st century who loves the great outdoors, wants to study apes, monkeys or prosimians and cares about the conservation of the animals does not see her vocation as a soft option. The fact that most of her fellow researchers are also women is not something to be ashamed of. One female Ph.D. student at Liverpool University told me that there was only one man in her tutorial group of ten. He was considered an honorary woman because he wanted to study the traditionary female domain of primate mother and infant bonds, instead of a typically male area of research such as the animal's diet or the male's territorial range. In thirty years sexism has gone full circle.
As the numbers of women attending university primate courses increase and more women volunteer for primate conservation, a critical mass of women is growing, developing a gravitational pull, sucking in more and more women to the world of primate study. On average eight out of ten Ph.D. students in primatology are women and all places are vastly oversubscribed. The women offer each other support as role models and motivation as competitors. There is a great deal of competitiveness and professional rivalry between the intellectual camps. Jealousies between female primatologists are common. The belief that you observed certain behaviours first but that your discovery has been ignored in favour of another researcher's work is a common gripe.
Primatology is one of the few areas where women have become professional scientists purely through their amateur enthusiasm without having to go to university. A male equivalent of this is astronomy. Eager non-professional astronomers can find permanent places in the history books, such as the amateurs Hale and Bopp, who recently identified a new comet.
Table of Contents
|1||Danger and Obsession||1|
|3||The Secret Life of the Female Baboon||78|
|5||Wild at Heart||143|
|6||The Woman Who Loved Apes Too Much||184|
|7||Aping for the Audience||220|
|8||Talk to the Animals||244|
|9||The Battle of the Sexes (and the uses of the female orgasm)||285|