Famous chimpanzee research comes home to U professor

Kelly Hildebrandt

Deep within the bush of Africa lies the Gombe National Park. The plush forest houses snakes, bush pigs and chimpanzees.
It is here, along the shores of Lake Tanganyika, that Jane Goodall began her 30-year study on the behavior of chimpanzees.
Trudging through the wilds of Africa, over cliffs and through streams, Goodall followed the chimpanzees’ every move — revealing similarities to humans, such as the ability to use tools and cooperative hunting.
Today, that research so vigorously collected through the years has traveled half the world and landed at the University, where Anne Pusey has continued the study.
“We decided it would be a good idea to get all the data that was sitting in her house in Africa and into a safer place,” said Pusey, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior. “So we started shipping it over here to Minnesota.”
Pusey, who studied the Gombe chimpanzees with Goodall in the 1970s while earning her Ph.D. at Cambridge University, reinstated her research in the 1980s at the University.
Pusey fell into working with Goodall when she was searching for graduate schools.
“She didn’t take people straight on as Ph.D. students,” Pusey said. “She brought them in as assistants first to try them out to see if they could actually hack it in the bush, because it’s not easy to go off and study chimps.”
When Pusey went to Gombe, there weren’t any roads into the reserve, so she went by boat. Every day they would follow the chimps on foot through the bush.
“It’s amazing watching these chimps,” Pusey said. “They come very close to you, because they’re completely unafraid of people, because people have been studying them for so long.”
Pusey said one interesting aspect about chimpanzees is their use of tools. They use blades of grass to catch termites and use sticks to catch ants.
“They push (a blade of grass) into termite mounds and then the soldier termites bite onto the end of the grass, and they pull them out and eat them,” Pusey said.
Because of her research in ethology, the study of animal behavior, Pusey is one of the five recipients of the Distinguished McKnight University Professorship. The McKnight professorship is awarded to mid-career faculty who excel in their field as a researcher and professor.
“She has been a role model for graduate students,” said Frank McKinney, a professor in the ecology department, adding that Pusey always has time to talk with students and faculty.
In addition to the importance of long-term studies in development of behavior, Pusey’s research on chimpanzees has provided links between human and animal behavior, McKinney said.
Pusey’s research focuses on female chimpanzees and their ranging activities. Unlike males, when females reach maturity at around 11 years old, they leave the group to join another, Pusey said, adding that she believes this is to avoid inbreeding.
But some females don’t leave, so Pusey began examining why this occurs. Although she hasn’t found any clear results from the data yet, she has several hypotheses.
Their decision to stay could depend on whether their mothers are alive or if they have a good ranging area to live in, Pusey said.
While studying female relationships, Pusey stumbled onto some interesting observations.
“We found that females have dominance with relationships, so some females are more higher ranking than others,” she said. Pusey added that this was hard to determine because chimps spend a lot of time alone.
While studying these rankings, Pusey found that dominance influences reproduction and that babies of high-ranking females live longer and grow up more quickly.
“Now we’re just sitting on this gold mine, and we can ask all sorts of questions,” Pusey said, adding that a research assistant working with her will study male chimpanzee behavior in Africa.
Ian Gilby, a Ph.D. student in zoology, will study association patterns between males, which will involve a trek to Gombe.
He will study why male chimpanzees share the meat they kill with other chimpanzees when they could eat it themselves.
One possible reason Gilby said they may share meat is to ensure they will get some for themselves.
“They get these intense little begging circles where you’ve got a possessor of a carcass and individuals around begging for meat,” Gilby said. “Sometimes they escalate into fights and the meat gets stolen.”
Or it could be an issue of give and take, Gilby said. If a chimp gets food from someone, he might remember and return the favor at a later date.
Although Gilby has no idea what to expect, he said stories from Pusey have indicated it will be an incredible experience to follow the chimpanzees in Gombe.
“I love going to wild places,” Pusey said. “It was just a dream for me.”