Understanding chimpanzee behaviour and culture in Africa

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Chimp & See: understanding chimpanzee behaviour and culture in Africa

By Tomos Williams & Tobie Wharton

Since 2004, Mimi Arandjelovic has been studying wild ape populations at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and is the project coordinator of the Pan African Programme: The Cultured Chimpanzee (PanAf).

Mimi focuses on primate genetics, molecular ecology and conservation biology, and finding efficient means of studying wild animal populations with non-invasive methods. The Chimp and See was launched by the PanAf project focuses  on observing our distant cousins in the jungle use tools to work out how our ancestors may have evolved primitive tool use.

“The PanAf is made up of 40 temporary research sites across the chimpanzee range, where our dedicated site managers spend around 17 months collecting organic samples and data on chimpanzee ecology and behaviour.

 

A curious chimp inspects the camera (Video: Chimp & See)

“A big part of their job is maintaining video camera traps at their sites and Chimp & See evolved out of our need to analyse all the video the PanAf has been collecting since 2011.” explains Mimi.

As PanAf’s head quarters is based in Germany, they rely heavily on ‘citizen scientists’ to keep the project’s blood pumping.

Volunteers view videos online and help sift through them to identify species. There is a field guide to help with identification of both animals and behaviours.

Experienced volunteers know the chimps so well that they can tell them apart in the videos which is a monumental advantage for the project.

“There are also many ongoing discussions on the Chimp & See talk pages for people who are curious about specific species names and behaviours, so the team welcome everyone to give Chimp & See a try and ask as many questions as they want – they are online daily to answer questions!”

“I am amazed at how many people go beyond the broad categories and want to get to the species level.

“It is really fantastic, instead of getting the videos marked as ‘monkey’ people are marking them (by hashtagging them in Talk) with the actual species name.

“We seem to have young students who do it as part of their curriculum and more senior contributors who enjoy doing it alone or with their grandchildren, and everyone in between.

“The response so far has been incredible! I have to say, I am really impressed with what people have been finding, but it would be very cool if we can identify more animals that were thought to be previous extirpated from areas.

“We had this earlier this year in Bateke, Gabon, where a lion was found on one of our camera traps. This was the first time a lion had been seen in Gabon for two decades.

The amount of footage captured through Chimp and See has allowed PanAf to identify varying cultures in distinct Chimpanzees populations.

The differences between cultures arise in the method of tool use; “Chimps at certain sites in West Africa crack nuts with stone or wood hammers.”

 

Chimp using stone tools (Video: Chimp & See)

 

Chimp using wooden tools (Video: Chimp & See)

“Chimpanzees use many different tools for a variety of tasks and they use these tools differently depending on where they are from.” says Mimi.

As is the nature of camera traps, the camera trapper has limited control over the species of animal which he or she captures. Scientific projects in the depths of the African jungle are also not immune to this conundrum it seems – “[Camera trapping] also tell us about the chimpanzee predator density at each site [like] leopards, the density of certain prey animals [such as] monkeys, the human pressure at each site and the density of species that are food competitors with chimpanzees.”

 

A leopard inspects the camera (Video: Chimp & See)

 

A troop of monkeys exploring the jungle (Video: Chimp & See)

Mimi explains how identifying animals that are not Chimps is actually important to their investigation – “These are all factors that directly affect chimpanzee behaviour. Furthermore, we want biodiversity estimates for each site, which is why we want each animal identified in broad categories.”

“From this we can also ascertain which species make good indicator species for these forests, which helps us develop better bio-monitoring tools.

“Other researchers who are interested in particular categories of animals will also be given the relevant videos for further analyses in their fields.”

When we at NatureSpy go camera trapping, we often aim to set up cameras on trails we think animals are likely to use. Mimi describes how the jungle is not at all different except that we use deer trails and they use…. “Elephant trails, which many different species use when moving through the forest, or utilising fallen logs that create bridges over streams and rivers.”

 

King colobus monkey sprints across log (Video: Chimp & See)

“We also place cameras at suspected chimpanzee tool use sites. These may include nut cracking sites (as above), termite mounds (where they use twigs to fish for termites and accumulative stone throwing sites (a new behaviour we have recently documented)”

 

Mother teaches young chimp to hunt termites with tools (Video: Chimp & See)

Unfortunately, poaching for illegal trade and bush-meat is still an enormous problem in the African bush. The Chimp and See cameras have fallen victim to criminals who try and hide their tracks – “Our biggest challenge is people.

“The number one reason we lose cameras is because of poachers taking them down or destroying them.

“At sites with a lot of illegal activity we have a lot of cameras that go missing or are found smashed up by machetes.

“At some of the drier sites we work in, people practice slash and burn agriculture and our cameras have fallen victim to these fires.

Other than people, the animals and elements of the jungle can cause their own challenges for camera trappers. Mimi recalls some of the tougher moments: Having used tupperware boxes to protect from the elements they “encountered certain fungi and insects that eat the plastic tupperware and camera casings and so we have had some cameras come back in a pretty tattered state.”

Insects are not the only animals to have a go at the cameras; “We have had some issues with elephants though. We try to avoid this by masking the human scent on the cameras by coating them in elephant dung. This helps most of the time.”

 

Elephant inspecting camera (Video: Chimp & See)

“We also have the occasional readjustment by leopards when they scent mark the cameras. I actually do not think we have had any apes destroy cameras!”

We are often fascinated with the activities of jungle animals as they seem alien and magical. I asked Mimi if she had any favourite captures that she’s seen – “I have to say, pretty much every video of chimpanzees cracking nuts is still really cool and exciting for me to watch, especially watching the really small ones observe their elders and then try it out for themselves.

 

 

Baby chimp learns from its mother (Video: Chimp & See)

“Seeing really rare species on the camera traps, animals you don’t usually get to see when you are in the forest, is also really amazing. Check out this big family of forest elephants:”

 

Family of elephants make their way through the forest (Video: Chimp & See)

Not all animals have a fun time in the jungle it may seem, some are clumsier than others. Mimi shared her favourite ‘forest fail’ with us:

 

Forest fail (Video: Chimp & See)

So what would be Mimi’s number one tip to camera trappers out there?

“Check the cameras as often as possible to really find those great sites and just keep optimising it until you get it right!

“At some of our really impressive sites we even place two or three cameras at one location, so we can get all possible angles of the behaviour.

Thanks to Mimi for her answers from the whole NatureSpy team! If you would like to learn more about the Chimp & See project you can find information on their website and updates on their twitter feed.


Mimi and the Chimp & See team would like to thank all the Zooniverse Team for  creating the Chimp & See platform. She also recognises the invaluable contributions of collaborators and volunteer site managers from 40 sites across Africa – without their hard work and dedication none of this would be possible.

Finally, the Chimp & See team are hugely thankful for the contributions of citizen scientists for this project – it simply cannot be done without interested and motivated people! Citizen scientists can help in two main ways.

Firstly, by watching the videos and identifying the types of animals they see in the videos and what they are doing (there is a field guide to help with identification of both animals and behaviours). Secondly, motivated people can try to tell the chimpanzees apart and match chimpanzees in different videos.

This can tell the researchers which chimpanzees are at which cameras, who they interact with and also how many chimpanzees are at each site. There are also many ongoing discussions on the Chimp & See talk pages for people who are curious about specific species names and behaviours, so the team welcome everyone to give Chimp & See a try and ask as many questions as they want – they are online daily to answer questions!