Apr 18, 2017

Do you see what I see?

As some of you know, Cat Hobaiter and I are putting together an online experiment to test human understanding of great ape gestures. This means pulling together video examples of all of our gestures, but we need to make sure that the gestures will be visible for everyone. Cat and I (and many of our colleagues) are used to looking past branches, with shaky cameras and digitally brightened videos. We are going to pick the clearest videos possible for the experiment, but I'm curious - how well can you spot a gesture?

Does it matter if the camera is shaky?

Does it matter if the angle is from underneath?

Does it matter if branches are in the way?
(this clip actually has two young bonobos gesturing)

Do the branches matter less if the movement is bigger?

Please give me feedback in the blog comments or on Twitter:
Were any of those gestures impossible to spot? Which condition was the hardest? After I hyped up the viewing difficulty at the top of this post, was it easier or harder than you expected to spot the gesture?

We are aiming to have the full experiment online by July, so WATCH THIS SPACE. We are also creating a website to host video examples of each gesture type for both bonobos and chimpanzees, so that you can finally actually see what the different gestures look like. 

Feb 13, 2017

Tapes 'n Tapes

It's been a change of pace since December, a different kind of "fieldwork". I'm working at the Primate Research Institute in Inuyama, Japan. The team at PRI have been filming wild chimpanzees at Bossou, Republic of Guinea, for the last 30 years. The video was used shortly after filming, by watching through a TV and coding directly. But most of the video is on tapes! VHS, Hi8, DV, even Betacam. Now we're working on a project to digitize all of the tapes, saving them to hard drives.

Digitizing the video will make it easier for future researchers to re-watch and code data through a computer. It will also protect the video footage. I didn't realise before, but VHS can go mouldy! Digitizing the tapes quickly should ensure that none of the video is lost.

This is a pretty big project, and many more people will continue to digitize after I leave. And the Bossou video isn't the only video that needs digitizing - so many universities and organisations have their own sets of tapes in the basement. I've made several videos to show how to use the digitizing system here at the Primate Research Institute: VHS, Hi8, and DV. It was fun Googling how to set everything up, but why put everyone else through the rigmarole?


This is just one tiny project at Primate Research Institute, but they do many more exciting things. They have an awesome Primatology and Wildlife Science graduate program and they run Kumamoto Sanctuary for retired biomedical chimpanzees (and 6 bonobos). Researchers conduct fieldwork and captive research alike. There always seems to be some kind of event going on, from weekly seminars to Conserv'Session documentary screenings. If I hadn't just finished a PhD, I'd definitely consider applying here...

Nov 30, 2016

Bonobos in the News

Three months, three bonobo papers.

by Alina Loth, Research Illustration

Expressed and Understood Repertoires

Bonobos use 68 gestures, around 90% of which are shared with chimpanzees. In some species, signals are given only by males and received only by females – think bird of paradise mating displays. But bonobo males and females, young and old, all produce and receive pretty much the same gesture types. There are some gestures that only adults produce and only young understand, e.g. gestures that ask the young to climb on the adult’s back. But these gestures are few and throughout an individual’s lifetime, everyone should have the opportunity to use and receive all gesture types. Thinking about the massive overlap with chimpanzees, the next question is “do bonobo and chimpanzee gestures mean the same thing?”. I’ll keep you posted!

This article was covered by Research Illustration and Not Bad Science.

Nahoko and I were following an adult female, Hide, who was carrying what seemed to be a miscarried infant. She carried the infant carefully all day, and then suddenly took a bite out of it! Hide was a dominant female and she ate most of the infant, which is what you’d expect in a meat-eating or -sharing event. Deborah was at Kokolopori when field assistants saw another cannibalism event. This time, the meat was controlled by a dominant female (not the mother) but the mother also ate pieces. The event at Kokolopori sounds similar to a case at LuiKotale. So now we’ve seen maternal cannibalism (mothers eating their babies) at three different places, which makes it look like it might not be so unusual. We’re still not sure what drives maternal cannibalism – it could be nutritional. Maybe events like these can tell us something about how bonobo mothers consider the deaths of their infants, but we’ll (unfortunately) need more examples first.

This article was covered by BBC Earth

When my dad reads a menu these days he has to hold it at arm’s length. So would Nao, if she could read. Nao is a 40+ year old female bonobo. As bonobos get older they become more long-sighted. We measured this by looking at the grooming distance – how far is it between their eyes and their fingertips when they’re grooming another bonobo? They should keep their fingers at the point of focus from their eyes. Forty-years seems to be the point where bonobos, like humans, start to “hold the menu further away”. Bonobo eyes seem to age like human eyes. One of our side findings, which I think is quite sweet, is that while human ears continue to grow forever (sorry grandpa, I’m talking about you!), there was no difference in ear length for young and old bonobos (the caveat being that none of our bonobos is over 60). They all just have pretty big ears.

This article was covered by The New York Times, New Scientist and more...

Sep 25, 2016

Kalinzu: First Impressions

I’ve been at Kalinzu research station in Uganda for just over a week, and it’s hard not to think of Wamba while I’m here. I’m constantly making comparisons!

To start with, Kalinzu is much easier to get to. It’s about a six-hour drive along a paved road all the way from Kampala. We have a 4x4 for the last section into the forest, but it’s still easy to get to compared to Wamba’s charter flight and motorbike expedition.

Easier transport means different food. There’s also reliable electricity, so we have a refrigerator with cold soda and beer!! Samuel, the cook, is amazing. There is a wider variety of ingredients available here than at Wamba, and with them he can cook all sorts of Japanese specialties (Kalinzu, like Wamba, is run by Kyoto University).

As you will perhaps have noticed by my more regular Tweets, there is also internet. Wamba doesn’t have any mobile phone reception, but Kalinzu does. Which is nice, but also, at Wamba I’m pretty happy being able to avoid all administrative work via email. I don’t have the same sort of excuse here.

The forest is also very different. The canopy is shorter. And although there are small streams, there is no swamp! I will not miss the ‘poto poto’.

What has struck me most about Kalinzu is the species diversity and density – there are many more monkeys here than at Wamba, probably because people don’t hunt them here. We regularly have colobus monkeys visit the camp, and every day I have seen blue monkeys and red tail monkeys. It definitely makes you wonder whether bonobos at Wamba would hunt monkeys if there were more monkeys to hunt…

Overall, it’s been a great first week. But I get the feeling that the next two months will fly by way too quickly.

Sep 4, 2016

Chimps in Context

After Evolang, I wrote a sentence-long synopsis of each of the talks and thought I'd do the same for "Chimpanzees in Context". It was a smaller symposium before the big IPS/ASP (primatology) conference in Chicago, so I was actually able to go to all of the talks (You'd need a time-turner to go to everything at IPS)! Chimps in Context was 2 days long and held at Lincoln Park Zoo. It was a nice warmup for the big conference at Navy Pier, which was 6 days long and hosted ~1500 people! I've been sleeping off that conference for the past week...


Jane Goodall –
    Reminiscing about Gombe and telling hopeful stories, with a “Jane-Lilian-Jane” sandwich: Lilian Pintea discussed GIS projects at Gombe and beyond.

Elizabeth Lonsdorf – “Growing up chimpanzee: studies of behavioral development in a comparative perspective”
    There are differences in mother’s interactions with male or female offspring, and male offspring spend more time playing with adult males.

Gottfried Hohmann – “Temporal patterns of development in bonobos and chimpanzees”
    Female bonobos go through puberty earlier than female chimpanzees, and this may facilitate earlier transfer to another group.

Melissa Emery-Thompson – “Chimpanzee reproduction in context: a lifespan perspective”
    Compared the reproductive strategies and interbirth intervals of non-human great apes and hunter-gatherer people.

Cheryl Knott – “Ecology and the energetics of reproduction in the Hominoids”
    Energy input and variability in food sources may affect life history of great apes – orangutans have a larger interbirth interval, possibly due to high seasonal variation in fruit availability.

Josep Call – “Communication and coordination in chimpanzees and orangutans”
    Gesturing to request tools? But no spoilers here, just WATCH THIS SPACE, there’s some cool research coming out of Call’s group.

Masaki Tomonaga – “How chimpanzees perceive faces: An update after nine years of investigation”
    Testing chimpanzees’ facial perception using similar techniques to humans (at IPS, Tomonaga presented this cool study looking at reactions to conspecific eyes).

Lydia Hopper – “Chimpanzee social learning: A comparative perspective”
    Chimpanzees learn a behaviour from an agent (a human’s hand) better than from a mechanical substitute (a grabbing claw).

Mike Beran – “Cognitive control in chimpanzees”
    Chimpanzees are able to inhibit behaviour for a better reward, and they use toys and magazines to distract themselves!

Cat Hobaiter – “Gestural communication in Pan: tracing the origins of language”
    We can work out the meaning of great ape gestures by looking at the reaction of the recipient that satisfies the signaller: the Apparently Satisfactory Outcome (ASO).

Jared Taglialatela – “A comparison of socio-communicative behavior in chimpanzees and bonobos”
    Chimpanzees direct their calls to other individuals and combine their calls with other signals more than bonobos do.

Zanna Clay – “Vocal communication in Pan: Insights into underlying social awareness and the evolution of language”
    Young male bonobos test their social standing using vocalisations directed towards adults.

Simon Townsend – “Chimpanzee food calling: implications for the evolution of human semanticity”
    When two groups of chimpanzees were combined, one group acquired the same vocalisation for “apples” as the other group.

Mollie Bloomsmith – “A simple chimpanzee welfare assessment tool: application across chimpanzees living in different types of facilities”
    Survey of labs, zoos, and sanctuaries reveals one is not superior across all aspects, and all have room for improvement.

Georgia Mason – “Why do captive animals – including chimpanzees – perform abnormal repetitive behaviors, and how can we identify pathological forms?”
    Stereotypic “ARB” behaviour is not necessarily pathological; we need to study it in more species and take it alongside other behavioural indicators.

Satoshi Hirata – “Welfare of ex-biomedical chimpanzees in Japan and the role of research at Kumamoto Sanctuary, Japan”
    Kumamoto sanctuary looks incredible. What more can I say?

Hannah Buchanan-Smith – “Environmental enrichment: our cognitive challenges”
    There is a sweet spot for cognitive enrichment tasks that’s not too challenging (frustration) and not too easy (boredom).

Crickette Sanz – “Sex differences in foraging among sympatric chimpanzees and gorillas in northern Congo”
    Goualougo has chimpanzees and gorillas in an overlapping range and they sometimes encounter. It also allows you to look at interspecies differences in tool use in the exact same habitat.

Stacy Lindshield – “Savanna chimpanzees at Fongoli, Senegal, use tools to reconcile an extreme environment”
    Savanna chimpanzees use tools for baobab cracking and bushbaby hunting.

Janet Mann – “Look no hands! Parallels and differences between dolphin and chimpanzee tool-use”
    Dolphins put sponges on their beaks and use them to flush fish out of hiding. But not all dolphins do it; in this study group 4% are members of the sponge club, and mothers pass sponging on to daughters.

Claudio Tennie – “Chimpanzee tool-use: cultural, but not culture-dependent”
    Non-human great ape tool use might not be learned, could just be serial individual re-invention: Is hominin stone tool use also a latent solution?

Brian Hare – “Who is nicer, bonobo or chimpanzee?”
    “Chimps eat food" but bonobos share it with strangers; if a bonobo is in a room alone with some food and can see another bonobo, they let them in before eating.

Sarah Brosnan – “Cooperative decision-making in non-human primates”
    Capuchins, Rhesus, Chimps, and Humans all fall to Stag-Stag solution in a cooperation game, but maybe follow different strategies. And in other games, they act very differently.

Shinya Yamamoto – “Cooperation in dyad and in group among chimpanzees and bonobos”
    Chimpanzees may be better at group coordination (like crossing roads), and bonobos are better at dyadic cooperation (passing tools to another individual).

Katie Cronin – “Strategic cooperation by chimpanzees: friend today, foe tomorrow”
    At Chimfunshi, in a playback of unknown individuals, the chimpanzees responded in a coordinated patrolling movement.

Roman Wittig – “Chimpanzee friends: formation, maintenance and benefits of social bonds in wild chimpanzees.”
    Food sharing may help form social bonds (with more oxytocin no matter which individual), and grooming maintains them (with more oxytocin when with a friend).

Jorg Massen – “The social lives and cooperative skills of corvids”
    There is evidence of prosociality in cooperative breeding corvids but we need compare with more species to figure out why.

Lydia Luncz – “Culture in a nutshell: social influence on percussive tool selection in wild chimpanzees”
    Variation in the choice of stone or wood tools is not dictated purely by ecological factors, and so could be cultural.

Daniel Haun – “Group-level variation in chimpanzee social behaviour”
    Social closeness and tolerance varies in Chimfunshi groups and may be important for transmission of behaviour (e.g. grass in ear)

Colin Chapman – “Chimpanzee conservation: what we know, what we do not know, and ways forward.”
    Deforestation, Hunting, Disease, and Climate change all affect great apes, but we need more data on how it all works.

Tatyana Humle – “Contextualising coexistence between people and chimpanzees: challenges and opportunities”
    A very balanced talk on how to approach the issue of palm oil in Guinea, by considering the needs and rights of people at all levels (local to international), and also without any “white saviour” nonsense.

Dave Morgan – “Modern environmental challenges to the ecological flexibility of chimpanzees”