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The Cool Kids Of Summer Science

Yabien, a three-year-old chimpanzee at the Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon
Courtesy of Jen Draiss
Yabien, a three-year-old chimpanzee at the Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon

It's summer. School's out and college kids are resting their brains.

Except for the thousands who aren't — including students avidly engaged in science, all around the world.

In Uganda, at the Budongo Conservation Field Station, a young male chimpanzee called Zed tries to impress a female named Kumi. He shreds a leaf, he hits the ground, he moves through the repertoire of tried-and-true chimpanzee tactics for luring a mate. No luck; for a good while, Kumi remains impassive.

Brittany Fallon, College of William and Mary '11 and my former student, is observing Zed, Kumi and the other chimpanzees of the Sonso community in Budongo. Now a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Universite de Neuchatel in Switzerland, Brittany films and analyzes the apes' multi-modal communication: How do gestures, vocalizations, facial expressions and body movements all coalesce together to send a message? How do young chimpanzees learn how to communicate effectively in this way?

This is pure research, aimed at understanding our closest living relatives' behavior patterns. But Budongo is a high-risk region for poaching and chimpanzee protection is a priority; a team is employed to patrol the forest and deactivate poachers' snares. Even so, "around 10 of our chimpanzees have seriously damaged or missing limbs due to snares in the forest," Brittany told me earlier this week.

It's trauma to apes and monkeys that the Limbe Wildlife Centre, across the continent in Cameroon, aims to combat. Jen Draiss, Simpson College '12, whom I've informally mentored for a few years now, spent last summer at Limbe and returns next month. The Centre hosts over 230 orphans of the bushmeat trade— victims of illegal hunting in the forests.

"Helping to raise baby primates may sound like a fun task, however, the realization that those babies should be in the forest with their mothers and families is constantly on my mind," Jen told me.

The work can bring incredible highs, too. Last summer, a three-year-old chimpanzee named Yabien came to the Centre. First caught in a snare then kept chained as a village pet, Yabien arrived in bad shape, needing emergency surgery. Her psychological scars were equally evident, for she rocked back and forth and banged her head against the wall.

In short grooming and play sessions, Jen worked with Yabien. Weeks later, she heard "the most beautiful sound" ever, Yabien's laughter in response to Jen's tickling.

At excellent zoos, also, science can be for the animals, not only about them. At the San Diego Zoo, a troop of brown capuchin monkeys, donated from a behavioral-research center in Atlanta, recently settled in to their new home.

Mitch Caudill, William and Mary '14 and a current student of mine, is a Bonner Fellow at the Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research charged with documenting the effects of crowd behavior on the capuchins.

"The research is focused on aiding the welfare of primates in zoos generally," Mitch told me. "But [it] is also particularly important for this troop since they have never been exposed to zoo crowds."

Are certain of the monkeys stressed by zoogoers' behavior, and if so, how can the Zoo manage that situation?

I remember my first science-oriented summers, observing apes and living far away from home. It was exciting, and scary, with much to learn, including how to manage my own mistakes. Now I'm cheering on another generation — at primate sites, archaeology digs, environmental-science camps, chemistry labs, astronomers' telescopes and scores of other places where the cool kids hang out and do science.

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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