Mining 50 Years of Chimpanzee Data

Notes from Jane Goodall's long-term study being worked on at Duke
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Apr 22, 2011

Note: Please visit the special web site we've built to show the public what the archive is like.

Almost every day since July 1960 someone has been watching the chimpanzees in what is now Gombe National Park in Tanzania, making careful notes of their every action from dawn to dusk.

Begun by Jane Goodall and carried forward by generations of the world's leading primatologists, this irreplaceable collection of data from 50 years of uninterrupted study is now being curated and digitized by researchers at Duke University so that it can become even more useful to science.

Duke has established a new research center to house and manage the archive, which is owned by the Jane Goodall Institute of Arlington, Va. Anne Pusey, chair of evolutionary anthropology at the university, will run the project, which will be known as the Jane Goodall Institute Research Center.
"Jane Goodall's contribution to primate studies simply cannot be overstated," said Pusey, who began working with Goodall in Africa in 1970. "She helped establish a new way of studying animals in the wild, and inspired countless others to follow in her footsteps. We're delighted to have Dr. Goodall visiting us to see what we're doing with her data, and to meet with the students and faculty who are making the work she started even more valuable."

At 26, Goodall arrived at Gombe Stream on the east shore of Lake Tanganyika to observe one of humankind's closest relatives in the wild. She had little training and no fixed methodology, but she was blessed with a keen eye for observation and endless patience. At first from a distance and then close up, she took meticulous notes of everything she observed chimpanzees doing.

"At 2:00 Flint suckled from the right breast - 2 mins. paused for half a min and then he suckled for another 1 1 / 2 mins. same breast. He then sucked his own thumb."

Checksheet from 1968

To build rapport with the chimpanzees and be able to observe them closely for longer periods, Goodall used bananas at a feeding station, a practice which has since been discontinued. Longhand notes gave way to audio transcriptions, typed each night on carbon paper copies. Narrative became grids of abbreviated data called "check-sheets."

Students and Tanzanian field staff joined the data collection. As the chimpanzees became more accustomed to these strange apes, their human observers were able to track them into the steep and tangled terrain surrounding the camp.

"7:08 ... FD raise a hand and shake branch calling SA, SA follow quickly and present her genitals to FD who mates her with copulation sounds. FD finish and then continue to feed."

Simply by watching carefully, Goodall revolutionized our understanding of chimpanzees: They make and use tools. They mate promiscuously, but have lifelong bonds with their mothers. They laugh and play. They have shifting political alliances and wage violent battles over territory. They hunt monkeys and bush pigs in groups and eat their meat.

"15:31 ... 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."

"If you really want to understand how the minds of animals work, you have to go out and see how they behave in their natural environment," said Brian Hare, an assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology and director of the Hominoid Psychology Research Group at Duke. "(Goodall) challenged us to think about how their minds work in the real world. That's the major contribution Jane made."

All of these data, narratives in English and Swahili, check-sheets, hand-drawn maps, video tape and photographs, are being studied and digitized in a suite of rooms at Duke that houses more than 20 file cabinets full of documents dating back to Goodall's first observations. The collection continues to receive new data from the study at Gombe on a regular basis in paper and digital forms.

Jane and Apollo, 1970Jane Goodall and the chimpanzee Apollo in 1970. (c) the Jane Goodall Institute.

The Gombe archive is priceless for several reasons. First and foremost, it is only by watching a long-lived species for entire lifetimes that we can see the larger patterns created by social bonds and family relationships, said Duke biologist Susan Alberts, who has been studying baboons in Kenya for nearly 30 years.

And while each day of tracking data by itself may not add up to much, there are rare events and subtle patterns in the day-to-day events that can only be discerned by taking the long view, Pusey said.

"Just by watching animals over time you can learn so much," said Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Center, which has a 40-year database of captive lemurs. "That informs your questions, so that the questions that you ask are really powerful. And the more you know, the more powerful the questions are."

The archive of Gombe data will be used to form new questions about chimpanzees and other primates, said Pusey, who recently co-authored a paper with Alberts examining the aging process across all primate species using long-term data from Gombe and other field studies. Note: Please visit the special web site we've built to show the public what the archive is like.


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