For my students who are currently reading on Ethology:

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1960–the same year that a U.S. satellite snapped the first photo of the Earth from space, the same year that the CERN particle accelerator became operational, the same year that the Beatles got their name–a 26-year-old Jane Goodall got on a plane in London and went for the first time to Gombe Stream Game Reserve, in Tanzania. She carried with her only a notebook and some old binoculars. Almost every day since the day Goodall arrived there in July 1960, somebody has been watching the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) of what is now called Gombe National Park, carefully recording their every movement.

At first, Goodall would situate herself atop a ridge that allowed her an especially wide view of Gombe. She wrote, “I could see my camp in the valley to the south, and the dense forest of the lower Kasekela Valley to the north. I gazed through my binoculars at the chimpanzees feasting on fruits and leaves and began to gather my first impressions of their daily life.” Later, after the chimpanzees became somewhat more accustomed to her presence, she was able to get a bit closer. Rather than assigning each individual chimpanzee a number, as is convention in such anthropological studies, she began to assign them names, like “David Greybeard,” “Goliath,” and “Frodo.”

Conventional or not, Jane Goodall–who earned her Ph.D. in Ethology from Cambridge University despite not having Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees–revolutionized not only the way we understand chimpanzees, but also the way we understand ourselves. Duke University announced today that for the first time, fifty years of observational data from Gombe will be housed in the same location, in digitized format, so that additional researchers will be able to utilize it. Dr. Anne Pusey, chair of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke, will run the project, which will be known as the Jane Goodall Institute Research Center at Duke.

Prior to Goodall’s research, people thought that the human species was the only one to spontaneously use tools in any reliable or meaningful way. There were a few instances that had been recorded of captive chimpanzees and other non-human primates using sticks as tools or as missiles, and a few researchers had spotted wild chimpanzees using rocks to break apart nuts, but spontaneous, flexible tool use was considered unique to humans.

During her first years at Gombe, however, Goodall discovered that wild chimpanzees did in fact use tools, and quite extensively. In a paper published in the journal Nature, she wrote, “During three years in the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanganyika, East Africa, I saw chimpanzees use natural objects as tools on many occasions. These objects consisted of sticks, stalks, stems and twigs, which were used mainly in connexion with eating insects, and leaves which were used as ‘drinking tools’ and for wiping various parts of the body.” During a period of six months, she had recorded observations of tool use in 25 chimpanzees of all ages and both sexes. She regularly encountered groups of four or five chimps pushing sticks into underground ant nests. After waiting a moment, she watched them remove the sticks from the dirt and lick the ants off the stick. This might not seem like a big deal, but it was!

And not only that, but the chimps wouldn’t just use any broken stick they found lying around; instead, they intentionally broke them into smaller pieces ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 feet long. She also observed three chimpanzees use sticks for a completely new purpose. At a feeding site that she set up, she watched three adolescent chimps use sticks to pry open boxes of bananas. “After pulling and pushing at the boxes for up to five minutes, each one broke off a stick and stripped it of leaves. Two individuals then tried to push their sticks under the box lids. The third pushed his into the bananas through a hole on the bottom of the box.” Critically, none of the three individuals who tried this had seen either of the others trying to solve the same problem. Each of them came up with the idea on their own!

It is said that after Goodall phoned Louis Leakey with news of the chimps’ tool use, he wrote, “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.”

Goodall’s observations weren’t limited to tool use. Prior to her research, people thought that chimpanzees were peaceful vegetarians. Goodall discovered, however, that chimpanzees regularly hunt and kill small monkeys. In one of her notebooks, she wrote, “…KS follows a female colubus (monkey) who was carrying a baby monkey on tummy. Grabs the baby and takes it in the bushes and feeds on the colubus. Other chimps continue to hunt.” Subsequent research found that groups of chimpanzees often form hunting parties. When they find a monkey, they isolate it in a tree surrounding it from all sides in order to prevent its escape. Meanwhile, one chimp attacks and retrieves it. The meat is then shared among the group. Not only does this change the way we think about chimpanzee diet and nutrition, but also the way we think about the natural history of cooperative behavior.

Goodall realized that if she was going to take such meticulous notes, she would have to develop a more efficient note-taking system. Instead of taking longhand notes, she began using voice recorders. Each night, she would transcribe her notes onto carbon paper. Eventually, her long narratives would be replaced by abbreviated data called “check-sheets.”

Now, researchers at Duke University are taking more than twenty file-cabinets full with fifty years of check-sheets, longhand narratives in both English and Swahili, hand-drawn maps, videos, and photos, and carefully digitizing everything. This will allow researchers to construct searchable life-histories of the chimpanzees of Gombe, for the first time. The word “archives” is a bit misleading, though. The new Jane Goodall Institute Research Center at Duke is continuing to receive new data from Gombe, which will all become digitized and included in the collection as well.

The curation of this sort of longitudinal data is critical now, more than ever. According to a recent review co-authored by Pusey, Goodall and colleagues, chimpanzee populations have declined from around one million individuals in 1900 to fewer than 300,000 today. While the total population size of chimps may seem large compared to other endangered ape species like the Sumatran orangutans, chimps reproduce and mature very slowly (like humans). This makes them particularly vulnerable to hunting and disease. In addition, most wild chimpanzees live in the Congo, where wildlife protection is extremely difficult due to ongoing political conflicts and war. Massive deforestation, to make way for farming and settlements, leaves chimpanzees in genetically isolated groups, making the risk of extinction even higher. It is also particularly difficult (if not impossible) to reintroduce captive-born chimpanzees or those orphaned by the illegal bushmeat trade into wild groups because of high hostility between members of different social groups. It is extremely common for infants of either sex, or males of any age, to be attacked and killed by members of other social groups. Goodall has estimated that unless major changes are put into place, the species could be extinct in the wild in just thirty years. The future of the other species in the genus Pan, bonobos (Pan paniscus), is even bleaker.

Humans and our primate cousins are similar not just in terms of behavior. There are abundant similarities as well when it comes to brain structures and immune systems. Research on the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) could shed important light on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Unique among non-human animals, chimpanzees are susceptible to influenza and polio. With over 97% of our genome shared with chimpanzees and bonobos, this might not be particularly surprising. The desire to understand where we come from is a fundamentally human trait, but this understanding is vitally dependent on understanding our nearest primate relatives.

(Courtesy: Jason G. Goldman, You Tube, Duke University, Scientific America and those stakeholders of the printed article and multimedia)