Week 9: Zoo Impressions


Going to the Zoo as a class with intentions for research certainly helped open my eyes to a whole new way of looking at zoos. I have grown up going to the NC zoo in Ashboro, but this was my first time with an objective purpose, and thus I experienced it very differently.

As a class, we arrived at 9:00 in the morning right as the zoo was opening. We got to walk from North America to Africa (not without plenty amount of jokes); and we got to see several North American animals along the way. In general, I have always found little interest in the animals from North America like the Red Wolves and Grizzly Bears. As we approached the Gorilla’s habitat, it was revealed to us that the Gorillas would not be out until it reached 45 degrees. While it was slightly frustrating for us as researchers to be put on hold for an indefinite amount of time, it definitely was comforting to know that the natural climates of the gorillas were being respected.

Because we didn’t know when the gorilla’s would be out, we went inside to take a look at the Hamadryas baboons, which was when the day started to get interesting. The enclosure for the Hamadyras was a combination of indoor / outdoor, and it gave them quite a bit of room to run and play around. We got to see a good deal of interaction between males and females as well as adults and juveniles. The juveniles seemed fairly attached to the adult females, and the adult males seemed pretty aloof – kind of doing their own thing. What interested me the most was how active the kids were! They were constantly picking fights with each other and it seemed like they were in a territory battle over a log. The kids were also very interested in their audience; we got a few taps at the glass! I thought that the way the enclosure was set up enabled us to view the baboons really well while giving them enough privacy and room to romp around.

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Juvenile Hamadryas baboons on their log


After spending quite a bit of time with the baboons, the gorillas still weren’t out (it was COLD!) we decided to go say hello to the chimpanzees. The chimp enclosure was very large and the exhibit gave information about all the chimpanzees in the habitat. I liked the displays because it gave us a way to learn more about the chimpanzees even though we couldn’t see them all. We couldn’t see very many, in fact, except and older male and a mother / infant pair. It seemed like the mother was pretty protective of her child, when she noticed us watching them she made a great effort to shield her child from us. At one point she came over to inspect us.

image (1)Around 12:00 the baboons made it outside! Antsy to get started on my observations, I didn’t spend much time familiarizing myself with the different gorillas. I would definitely do this part differently next time. It was difficult for me to differentiate between the adult females at the outset of my observations. After time it certainly got easier, but I suddenly had much more respect for Dian Fossey who had to deal with many more than 3 adult females! I loved watching the different gorillas and discerning their personalities. My midterm research paper will reveal more about their specific behaviors, but you could definitely tell the difference between gorillas based on behavior and not just their idiosyncrasies.

The gorillas in this particular exhibit may have been acting uniquely because of the recent losses in family. The Silverback gorilla has just recently passed away, and Acacia’s son also died recently. It was fairly obvious to see that Acacia was missing a son, and it seemed like her interactions with the two juveniles (who weren’t hers) was slightly more awkward, for lack of a better word. I think it would be neat to go back to the zoo eventually when another Silverback has been introduced to see how interactions between females changes.

I thought that the gorilla enclosure itself seemed slightly small, but that there were ample amounts of resources in the enclosure to keep the gorillas entertained (such as straw, brush, logs, etc…). We also got to see feeding time in the gorilla enclosure, where zoo keepers threw vegetables (such as carrots and romaine lettuce) to the gorillas.

Over all I thought that the experience was very valuable and helped me look at zoos in an entirely different way – objective and focused. I particularly disliked when the gorilla habitat became crowded with families (most of them pretty country) who clearly knew very little about the gorillas. Maybe this project has made me snobby and pretentious about wildlife, because I am now torn between the idea of a zoo as an educational and informative opportunity and a mere showcase to put the exotic on display to be admired in an ignorant manner. Either way I’m glad I had the experience and it was a great time!



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.

Week 7: Food and Social Organization


Just like any other animals, primates have various ways to obtain nutrition through the foods that they eat. Much like what we might see in Benson or in the Pit, how primates get the foods they do affects aspects of their social behavior and social organizations. In primates, we see two major types of foods: high quality foods and low quality foods. High quality foods, such as easily digestible foods that are high in protein like fruits and insects are high in caloric value while low quality foods might be considered fall back foods at times when those high quality are unavailable. The different types of foods are important because of the ways in which they are distributed.

A major part of social organization related to food is how types of foods are distributed, or how they are laid out within a primates habitat or niche. “Food patches” occur when food resources inhabit patchy distributions. High quality foods occur in patchier distribution, according to Strier, which creates competition in primates. This competition is what inevitably creates or highlights social organization within primates. As we talked about in class, there are many forms of competition. One form of competition that can create social organizations within primates is called “contest competition” when there are clear winners and losers in competition for food resources, while scramble competition is more like a tragedy of the commons scenario, where everyone may have access, but resources dry up quickly.

Feeding groups in primates are largely affected by the size of the food patch, dictated by this competition for food resources I just mentioned. In contest competition, social hierarchies come into play regarding who has access to resources. Higher ranking individuals will gain access to better resources while lower ranking primates generally wait until the others are done. Strier mentions that many primates in lower ranks might even be better off foraging alone, something that I found particularly interesting from our readings.

I also found it interesting the role that being a female plays regarding social organization and food availability. Many female groups and their social structures are even more closely related to the food that is available, because of the high metabolic costs of female reproductive processes. As a female, gestation and pregnancy requires more food to be sustained, and the process of nursing newborn babies is even more metabolically costly. Because of this increased need for food, female social structures and competition will be highly dependent upon the food that is available. It seems as though female social structures will be more fluid to avoid competition and therefore many females will end up going off alone to forage. I also found interesting, but not necessarily surprising that reproductive cycles will be in align with periods that have plentiful amounts of food.

It is often beneficial to look at species that are closely related and compare their behavior regarding food foraging and social structure, because while there are always similarities, differences in behavior can reveal much about the nature of social structure and food resources. Chimpanzees and bonobos are good examples of closely related species that exhibit varying behaviors regarding food foraging. Bonobo societies are cohesive and have much social stability. It is easier for female bonobos to forage together and avoid competition. On the other hand, chimpanzees are much more fluid, the status of female chimpanzees is weakly defined and can therefore be adjusted to account for varying food patches and scarcity. Both of these tactics to address how females get food have pros and cons, but seem to work for each species! This might also be related to varying behaviors in chimpanzees and bonobos when dealing with competition outside of food.

I’ve included some pictures of chimps and bonobos eating food.

Week 6: Bonobo Sexuality


I’ll be honest, I don’t think all of us have moved past our middle school days when any mention of sexuality in a professional (classroom) setting ignited an upsurge of snickers and giggles. Well, hold your laughter, because the bonobo’s wouldn’t see what’s so funny. The Bonobo, or Pan  paniscus, is one of our two closest relatives. Many people don’t know that we are just as phylogenetically close to the bonobo as we are to the chimpanzee (and both are closer in relation to each other than to humans). New information regarding the bonobo – specifically their social and sexual behavior – has emerged recently which forces us to look at human behavior and human evolution in a new light.

Bonobos have a very curious and unique mechanism to navigate social organizations and dominance relationships. In their article The Other “Closest Living Relative,” Parish and de Waal investigate how sexual behavior helps to reinforce bonobo social structure. Observations have shown that dominance in bonobo populations, as compared to chimpanzee populations, is much more vague and less defined. It appears as though there is a certain degree of female dominance over males, or as some like to  define it “strategic male deference” (Parish and de Waal, 99). Females are in control of their social and reproduction in bonobo societies, and participate in more female – female association than the chimpanzees. Females will often engage in sexual encounters, specifically genital to genital rubbing, for a variety of reasons regarding this unique social structure.

Sexual encounters between females helps to maintain strong alliances between one another and reinforce dominance in a non-violent manner, which thus helps keep tabs, so to speak, on male behavior (Strier, 188). This practice of genital rubbing has a variety of other functions, such as facilitating female immigration into new communities, mediating competition for food, and the reconciliation after occasional acts of aggression. Strier does make a note that aggressive acts between bonobos is actually quite rare, considering the rate of violence in chimpanzees. Bonobos, in contrast to other species, specifically the chimpanzee, engage in all sorts of sexual behavior, not just heterosexual. There were many explicit photos of such processes, which I decided to spare you. So instead, here is a picture of a cute baby bonobo:

Investigation into other forms of social and sexual organization reveal many possible areas of contrast and comparison. There is much less competition between bonobos than with chimpanzees, especially in males. I wasn’t quite sure, from what I could glean from the article, whether this competition was strictly sexual or related to food selection as well. I did think it was interesting that testes size of bonobos was comparable to bonobos; we generally see increased testes sizes in populations with high sexual competition. Bonobos are also highly social compared to other forms of social organizations. Female bonobos while not in estrus remain highly social while female chimpanzees tend to isolate themselves to other females and clinging infants. Chimpanzees, according to Parish and de Waal, are evidently much more likely to avoid one another than encounter each other.

The conclusions that can be made from observing bonobo behavior regarding possible female dominance or “strategic male deference” have massive implications regarding bonobo / chimpanzee / human evolution. As I already mentioned, chimps and  bonobos share a last common ancestor with each other, and they both share a last common ancestor with humans. That being said, we can expect that bonobo behavior would be just as good of a predictor of human behavior as chimpanzee behavior. Hominid evolution, according to Parish and de Waal, has been dominated by the idea that humans evolved from creatures like  Savannah baboons, and was driven forward by male competition and dominance. Closer inspection of bonobo behavior strongly challenges this notion, and forces us to reconsider the behavior that lead us to become our beloved Homo sapiensOne of my favorite parts of the article, as I tend to consider myself a mild feminist, was the list of themes of sexual and social behavior that we must apply to our understanding of human evolution. That list included but is not limited to: female bonds, possible female dominance, female mating strategies, sharing of vegetation for food, flexible social patterns, and non-violent males (Parish and de Waal, 99).

These very same themes that I have just mentioned above must now be applied to how we study human sexual behavior. We have come to live in a society that seems to – for some reason – value male dominance, especially in sexual and economic relationships. In looking at the bonobos, it seems to stand that our typical male ancestor might not have been inherently violent and dominant. I particularly enjoyed the idea that female oriented and female respecting societies are not as far away as the lemurs, but are much closer than we initially expected.

Rock on female bonobos.

Week 5: Article Review


For this blog post I chose to look into the Chimpanzee. I was recently invited to apply to a program in Sierra Leone regarding Chimpanzee behavior. This program is a field site that seeks to investigate how the chimpanzee’s communicate with one another using vocal cues and noises. This sounded very interesting to me, and pending my acceptance I might get the chance to look further into Chimpanzee communication, so I figured this was the perfect opportunity to learn the basics.

The article I chose was from the online database of the journal Current Biology and is titled Language Evolution: What Do Chimpanzees Have to Say? by Adam Clark Arcadi.  So, what DO they have to say? This article opens with comparing chimpanzee vocal communication to human (and other animals’) communication methods, and the author quickly makes it clear that he is responding to a study by Slocombe and Zuberbuhler’s study in 2005 about Chimpanzee communication.

Throughout the article, Arcadi pinpoints several chimpanzee calls and their specific information, and discusses them in relation to the topic he is discussion. I thought it might be useful to take a look at these calls before discussion the comparative, critical, and general points of this article. Alarm calls when a predator is approaching are particularly important for the safety of the group, but what I didn’t know before was that there are different calls for different predators! Chimpanzees also use the “rough grunt upon discovering food,” and will vary in frequency based on the amount of food present. He finishes the article by making the claim that Slocombe and Zuberbuhler would have found it useful to take into account things like age, sex, and even idiosyncrasy. Arcadi points out that larger sample sizes were needed, but this early study does offer a starting point from which to conduct future research. He concludes by saying that by “tracing evolution of language” we can take a look into the functionalism behind such calls and vocal communication.

I found that the authors specific approach to focusing on an evolutionary scope was particularly interesting. Arcadi sets good background information so that his paper might be accessible to many types of audiences. I felt as though, previously knowing nothing about Chimpanzee vocal communication, I was assimilated into the topic appropriately. This was one of the strongest points of the article. I also particularly liked how his overall goal was not necessarily to convey a specific set of data, but to critique another article while introducing the notion that it is important to take certain characteristics of study into mind.

I was worried that the article could have become slightly anthropocentric, as we have discussed earlier in the class. Arcadi, however, devotes a portion of the paper to discussing the specific and important ways in which chimpanzee “calls differ from human words.” The calls to which Arcadi is referring vary based on different situations. He mentions that calls responding to a predatory threat vary based on what predator is encroaching, and that recipients of the calls will respond to each call appropriately. One thing Arcadi placed his finger on nicely was that human words often refer to “concepts, rather than physical entities,” and that is an aspect that sets us apart. Arcadi uses the term functional reference to characterize certain types of communication that refer to certain pieces of information. Perhaps I needed more information about vocal communication in the first place, but I found his concepts to be slightly abstract and difficult to follow.

Overall I thought the article was definitely insightful and a great starting point to further my investigation on chimpanzee vocal behavior. I would have liked to see more information about specific purposes and the functionalist perspectives, rather than just a statement that they are present. This article is also almost 10 years old (it was 2005. Isn’t that weird…) and my next step would be to look for something more current! I would definitely recommend this article to anyone who is looking to gain more information about comparing primate communication with humans.

Here is a link to the article: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982205012200

Arcadi, Adam clark. “Language Evolution: What do Chimpanzees Have to Say?” Current Biology 15, no. 21 (2005): R884-R886.


Week 4: Primate Hybridization


Researchers and scientist have often defined a species as one that is isolated in terms of reproduction. This does not mean that two separate species cannot reproduce, but rather that they don’t. At least, that’s how I’ve always thought about species. A lion and a tiger can successfully reproduce to create a liger (and no – I didn’t know this until I watched Napoleon Dynamite), but these two species would never encounter one another in the wild, and therefore are reproductively isolated. And then I read about primate hybridization which forced me to approach this topic much differently.

Primate hybridization occurs when the geographic ranges or habitats of two separate species overlap a little, and individuals (typically males) “cross-migrate” to the boundaries of other species habitats. The outcome – a hybrid is an individual that Strier labels as “genetically unique,” and many of these hybrids can even reproduce themselves. This behavior has proven to be troublesome for taxonomists. Hybridization implicates that two distinct species are in fact not reproductively isolated – which, if you recall, is how I have always defined separate species.

In Cortés-Ortiz (2007), both positive and negative implications for hybridization are laid out at the beginning of the study. Hybridization could result in the breakdown of previous species and a potential loss of biodiversity or a “creative force” that would ultimately lead to the creation of new species.

I find the tension of hybridization to be quite complicated and without a clear answer. Strier’s textbook uses the example of two baboon species Papio hamadryas and Papio anubis to clearly illustrate the relatively common phenomenon of hybridization. The hamadryas and anubis babboons are two very different types of baboons: they have different social structures, foraging techniques, and they even look vastly different! But how can it be that they produce viable offspring?  I believe that the hamadryas and anubis baboons are clearly two different species despite their ability to produce hybrids. I believe that these two types of primates are relatively close species with a limited amount of interbreeding.

If we look at the Neanderthals and early individuals of Homo sapiens there is a relatively similar debate. There is a small amount of Neanderthal DNA present in modern-day humans, and we know that they existed in similar locations in similar times. So the question is Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis an accurate description of our relationship, or should we be classified as subspecies instead? This is one of the most heavily discussed issues in human evolution, and I find it fascinating that there is a similar and modern-day conundrum.

I think something interesting that might be a good point of discussion is the fact that evolution is a never-ending process. As humans, we love to think that we are the pinnacle of evolution. We can simply go no further because we have already achieved our optimal survival techniques. While modern health care and technology may help to make this myth a reality, species are always changing and evolving. The course of human and primate evolution is by no means a neat and clean one, and I imagine that hybridization could have occurred to assist this process somewhere along the way. Perhaps Papio anubis and Papio hamadryas are not separate species, but – as Cortés-Ortiz points out, perhaps they could be creating entirely new lineages.

When Strier discusses the baboon case study, she makes an interesting point that I find particularly interesting. I have already mentioned that hamadryas and anubis baboons behave very separately. If a “cross-migratory” male, let’s say hamadryas, reaches an anubis population, he may realize that anubis females respond differently to various mating behaviors. This makes relationships difficult to establish and stabilize between the two species. I also found it noteworthy that hybrids look and behave differently than either of their parental species. All of these social behaviors might make hybridization less likely to occur.

I particularly enjoyed looking at pictures of the two types of baboons. Here are my favorite pictures:


Strier, K.B. Primate Behavioral Ecology Fourth Edition. Prentice Hall: New Jersey; 2011.

Cortes-Ortiz, Duda, Canales-Espinosa, et al. Hybridization in Large-Bodied New World Primates. Genetics. 2007; 176: 2421-2425.

Week 3: Primate Diversity (part 2)


Along with the Coquerel’s sifaka I have decided to write up on the Orangutan as well! Ever since taking Human Evolution I have had interest with the Orangutan, they always seemed interesting and a little different than most other great apes. Because they are!

orangutan_img01-lThe Orangutans, as we know them by, can actually be classified into two separate species, based on their geographic location. The Orangutan primarily lives in Borneo (Pongo pygmaeus) and also in Sumatra (Pongo abelii). Although it used to be considered a single species, taxonomists have made the distinction between the two since 1996. I will discuss the Orangutan generally, only including important distinctions between the two. The Orangutan is considered a Great Ape, native to Indonesia and Malaysia, and lives in rainforests on Borneo and Sumatra, as stated above.

The Orangutan primarily eats fruit of the rain forest. It will, however, supplement its diet with other things such as insects, tree bark, honey, and other vegetation. The Orangutans particularly like sugary or pulpy fruits. Don’t we all… It is also important to note that digestion of fruit is much easier than digestion necessities of highly fibrous leaves. Because of it’s diet and the way it retrieves its food, the Orangutan is considered to be a forager; which also means that its diet will vary based on the time of year. Orangutans clearly enjoy fruit:


The Orangutans, compared to the rest of the great apes, actually are the most arboreal, despite their size. One of the most interesting facts about the Orangutans, in my opinion, was that they are the largest arboreal animal in the whole world! I already mentioned that their diet consisted mainly of foraged foods, and the Orangutan spends most of its day in the tree foraging for food. I particularly loved how Orangutans used their weight as a means of locomotion to sway tree branches.


The Orangutan is actually the most solitary of the Great Apes. The strongest bond is that of the mother and child. The dependent child will stay with its mother for about two years, but this relationship can last much longer. Some Orangutans remain breast-fed until they are eight years old! The Orangutan child takes quite a long time to grow up and they reproduce very slowly. Adult males will actually prefer to live alone than in any social groups. Social interaction between adult Orangutans mostly occurs when females’ home ranges overlap with others, most likely their immediate family. These interactions can be anywhere in between pleasant, ignorant, or aggressive, aggression particularly occurring between males with overlapping home ranges. This social structure is difficult to understand, but most simply put, they are semi-solitary with some degree of sociability. And here – for you, dear reader – is a picture of a baby Orangutan and its mother. Because the only thing cuter than a baby Orangutan is a baby sifaka.


Orangutans are considered highly intelligent primates, especially compared to other great apes; researchers have noted that they create nests from tree branches and other vegetation, and have a sophisticated tool set. Some of these tools even represent cultural variation and tradition, something that I – as an anthropologist – found really, really cool. I also thought it was fascinating that, despite their large size, Orangutans could build and sleep in nests up to 100 feet off the ground! Many researchers believe that the extensive culture of the Orangutans is one of the reasons why baby Orangutans remain with their mothers for such a long period of time: because there is so much for them to learn. This is a smart Orangutan:



Both Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii are considered to be endangered. Major threats to Orangutan populations include human activities such as deforestation and illegal hunting for animal trading. Though I didn’t know much about Orangutans before starting this project, I found them to be extremely fascinating and gentle creatures. I would love the opportunity to get to know more about them, and it pleased me to be able to read so much about various conservation efforts directed to the rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo! Plus, the Orangutan is our closest living relative that has red hair!


Photos from: