Week 8: Fossey Archives


The document I selected from Dian Fossey archives in the special collections room is her field notes, pure and simple. But before I discuss her observations and what they can tell us about studying primate behavior, I’d like to explain what I learned about Dian Fossey through this project, because she was so much more than a Mountain Gorilla observer. Fossey was an activist within the gorilla population. She led anti-poaching efforts in the local areas in Rwanda. She also was firmly against tourism for many reasons, particularly because gorillas are susceptible to human illness, such as the flu. These sorts of diseases can be detrimental to gorilla populations. Fossey also played a particularly active role in preservation of gorilla habitats, and was responsible for increase in park sizes in the local areas. And after Fossey’s untimely death, her legacy lives on through research programs she founded that are dedicated to helping study and protect mountain gorillas, especially in Rwanda.

But, as I said earlier, Dian Fossey was more than just an activist for her passions, but also a devout researcher, which can be seen in her field notes and detailed observations that I was lucky enough to get the chance to investigate. The actual content of the document is absolutely captivating. Fossey writes with such intense detail that the reader feels almost transported to Rwanda, just from reading raw field notes.

The document I chose, as it is just raw field notes gives no introduction and is even lacking a year (though we are told the month / year, beginning on January 9th). Fossey begins by observing a solitary silverback gorilla who seems to be wounded. She follows this mountain gorilla for the entire day, and attempts to go back and look for him to no avail. In the following days she returns back to the group (I believe it is Group 5). In her observations of these gorillas she continues to record with minute detail. She describes the child’s play, which is performed close to the silverback. She noted a great deal of play behavior between a juvenile and infant. She noted that a juvenile male beat his chest during play activity, which we were lucky enough to see at the zoo! Fossey takes notes on a cranky female, the noises she makes and the other gorillas she interacts with. She also describes the males with detail, although they are relatively inactive, and spend a great deal of time eating.

Fossey’s field notes are extremely detailed. She notes the time of day, the sights she sees, the smells, and the sounds she encounters on the mountain. Every slight movement of the gorillas she takes notes of. She notes the color of the blood leaking from the wounded silverback. She mentions expectations she had from gorilla behavior, surprises she encountered – that is to say she takes specific situations and compares them to what would generally be expected. Fossey takes great care to refrain from making judgments or conclusions. Her field notes, contrasted from Gorillas in the Mist are commentary on her five senses and logic heuristics. She does little to anthropomorphize the gorillas in this document.

The notes I read from Fossey’s field work validated much of the information given in Robbins’ excerpt from Primate Ethnographies. Robbins describes the mountain gorillas as “extreme” in their habitat niche; paying close attention to social patterns and their food resources. While the two works differentiate in the specificity of behavioral observations, there are many similar undertones. Robbins exhibits the same sort of desire to call attention to the rapidly dwindling mountain gorilla population as Fossey. They two are both interested in looking at social behavior and how it plays a role in subsistence / mating activities. Two of the biggest similarities I noted between the two pieces were related to difficulties in observing gorillas.

First of all, Fossey’s field notes indicated quite bluntly how difficult tracking gorillas could be. She had useless days that were wasted attempting to track a gorilla, specifically the wounded one. Fossey is a perfect representation of the necessity of persistence during primate field observations, which Robbins portrays through her work as well. Both pieces provide examples of the physical challenges that can be posed when attempting to follow the mountain gorillas. Research, furthermore, cannot even begin to take place if habituation does not occur. Habituation poses an immense challenge to both researches. The field notes I read seemed to be written while Fossey was still attempting to habituate the gorillas. This process can be particularly challenging and lengthy, according to Robbins.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dian Fossey’s field notes. They gave incredible insights to not only gorilla behavior from first hand perspective, but they painted a clear picture of the processes involved in actually studying primate behavior. This exercise was incredibly interesting to me and I think we are all so lucky to have access to these field notes!



Fossey, D. “Field Notes January 1969-1971.” Dian Fossey Collection: Box 15. Howard T.P. Hayes Special Collections. Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC. Accessed Febuary 25, 2014. Print.


3 thoughts on “Week 8: Fossey Archives

  1. I think its amazing how much detail Fossey was able to take down. After our zoo trip on Saturday I can only imagine how she managed to get details such as the color of blood the gorilla leaked that you mentioned in your post. At the same time it is also very important to take note of even the smallest things because they add so much the big picture.

  2. shawmk11

    After having spent time at the zoo attempting to record the activities of only one gorilla at a time, I am amazed at how much detail Fossey was able to get about all the gorillas surrounding her in the overgrown forests of Africa. I am amazed by her ability of recording observations, as well as her dedication and perseverance in continuing the research even on difficult days – as you said she spent many days wasted looking for one specific gorilla. I think this perseverance is what truly makes individuals like Fossey and Robbins great primatologists, because without their dedication and devotion to the mountain gorillas, we would not know nearly as much as we do now!

  3. cavakn13

    I would love to see read her observations myself. My document was a newsletter from the research centre that I’m sure she played a part in writing, but it wasn’t as specific as her field notes probably are. That would be so interesting to me considering a lot of what I observed on Saturday was more along the lines of “Apollo is playing with a burlap bag.” 🙂

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