Study break: Lonsdorf, left, and colleague amid savanna grasses in Tanzania. Ian Gilby.
Study break: Lonsdorf, left, and colleague amid savanna grasses in Tanzania. Ian Gilby.

Taking the Field

As a child, she devoured primatologist Jane Goodall's books and watched National Geographic specials about work in Tanzania. But Elizabeth Lonsdorf never dreamed that one day she would be observing chimpanzee behavior from Goodall's base camp.
Writer: 
January 31, 2002

The trip to Gombe Stream National Park begins with a flight to Dar es Salaam. From there, you take the train some 700 miles, a journey punctuated by stops in every small town and sometimes halted altogether by a derailed car or engine breakdown. After forty-plus hours, you arrive in the fishing port of Kigoma and step aboard a water taxi outfitted with a small outboard motor. Often, it is brimming with chickens and goats, oil drums, luggage, and people. If all goes well, just three to four hours later you disembark at a small compound on Lake Tanganyika's eastern shore. Welcome to the home of Frodo, Fifi, Glitter, and Golden--members of the world's most celebrated clan of chimpanzees.

It's a journey Elizabeth Vinson Lonsdorf '96 has made many times. And when the events of September 11 forced her to cancel her fourth and final research trip to Tanzania last fall, the twenty-seven-year-old animal behaviorist was sorely disappointed.

"I miss the chimps," says Lonsdorf, a North Carolina native who now lives in Minnesota. "I miss swimming in the lake. And I miss my friends. But I don't miss the rain. Or the snakes. Or the malaria."

Encompassing a mere twenty square miles, Gombe Stream is both the smallest of Tanzania's national parks and its most famous. Its renown, of course, is due to Jane Goodall, the field researcher who, at age twenty-six, was sent there by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study wild chimpanzees. Her subsequent discoveries rocked the scientific world--forever changing the way we think about animals, evolution, and human culture. Four decades later, Goodall now travels the global ecture circuit roughly 300 days a year, talking about her beloved chimps and spreading the gospel of ecological conservation. She returns to her adopted home only three times a year.

Thankfully, Lonsdorf, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in animal behavior at the University of Minnesota, and other researchers have taken up where Goodall's research left off. Though Gombe is the site of one of the world's longest-running wild animal studies, there's much yet to learn about chimpanzees, their habits, and their social behaviors. Lonsdorf is one of a cadre of young researchers from Harvard University, Minnesota, and the University of Bristol currently engaged in specialized field research at Gombe. Native Tanzanians have been trained to follow the chimps and record their behaviors year-round.

Lonsdorf is studying how skills, such as tool use, are passed down from mothers to infants. Two months before she began her work, a pair of twins, Glitter and Golden, were born to one of the chimps. It was an animal behaviorist's dream come true. "I think [Lonsdorf] has got the perfect study subjects with the twins," says Goodall, now sixty-eight, who has long had an interest in the interactions between mothers and infant chimps. "They have the same mother and [have had] exactly the same environment right from the beginning. Yet they have these very different personalities. Golden is the tomboy--she always wants to go off and play. Glitter, the more cautious one, is always watching everything. How does that relate to their development and tool use?"

That question has fueled much of Lonsdorf's research at Gombe, and drawn attention from outsiders as well. When an IMAX production team working on a film about Goodall and the chimps heard about Lonsdorf's work, they sought her out. Impressed by her scientific scholarship and bright personality, they offered to finance some of her work in exchange for the chance to capture her interactions with chimps on film. She agreed. Her star turn can be seen in Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees, due for release next October.

Animals have always held a certain fascination for Lonsdorf. As a kid, she read books about Dian Fossey and other primatologists. She watched National Geographic television specials, including several featuring Goodall. Her family was forever taking in stray cats and abandoned wildlife. "We rescued squirrels and birds. We always had a lot of pets," she recalls. "In high school, one of my friends found a cat on the side of the road. He was going to take it to a shelter, until somebody said, 'No, just take it to Elizabeth's house.' "

Chimpanzee

It was her passion for sports, however, that led her to Duke. "In 1991, the Final Four was in Indianapolis," the lifelong basketball fan recalls. Her father, an administrator at a small Indiana university, obtained tickets and took his daughter. "That was the first year Duke won. We were in the stands and I looked over at the Duke student section. They reminded me of my high school--sports-crazy. I said, 'Dad, what school is that? Who are they? What's the deal?'" Within a few months, she had applied for early-decision admission.

Arriving at Duke in 1992, she quickly developed an interest in psychology. "Elizabeth was one of my all-time favorite students," says Duke psychology professor Carl Erickson. "She was wonderful to have around because she's full of good humor and enthusiastic, about animals and life in general." Lonsdorf took two classes taught by Erickson and, at his urging, she and a friend signed on to help him with behavioral observations of the famed aye-aye population at Duke's Primate Center--nocturnal creatures Lonsdorf describes as "straight out of the movie Gremlins."

"I thought we'd be watching the aye-aye through some glass," she says. "But Professor Erickson gave us a clipboard and showed us how to mark their behaviors, and then he opened the door to the enclosure and shoved us in for two hours. We were right in there with the animals."

In fact, Lonsdorf went on to pursue a double major in psychology and biology, completing a senior thesis on aye-aye behaviors. Her thesis adviser, Duke biology professor Peter Klopfer, remembers her as a student who often politely disagreed with her instructors, choosing to go her own way when it came to accepted methods and procedures for scientific studies. "She accepted criticism and advice," Klopfer says, "but she was not cowed in any way if she had a better idea."

Much of Lonsdorf's training in biology came from field work. The summer after her sophomore year, she took a class at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. ("Basically, so I could be on a boat all summer," she says.) That fall, she studied marine field ecology at the University of New South Wales in Australia, combing the beaches near Sydney in search of plant and animal life. The summer after her junior year, she studied dolphins in Hawaii. Following graduation, she worked at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., on projects involving Golden Lion tamarinds and elephants.

Watcher in the woods: Lonsdorf records chimps using "tools". Josh Leonard.

But zookeeping wasn't the career she wanted. She began to consider a return to academe. She was just starting to look into graduate programs when she met Anne Pusey, a researcher at the University of Minnesota. Pusey had studied at Gombe in the early 1970s, and in the early 1990s she began to gather Goodall's early field jottings and research notes into a collection. The documents, previously scattered across the globe in places as far-flung as England, California, and Dar es Salaam, now constitute the core of the Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Pusey's ties and the documents piqued Lonsdorf's interest. She had one question: Had anyone done a serious study of termite fishing? No, said Pusey. No one had.

Termite fishing among chimpanzees was one of Goodall's landmark discoveries. Termites are a reliable source of protein for primates and, during the fall rainy season, when the pests reproduce and tunnel to the outside of their mounds, chimps regularly raid these otherwise impregnable fortresses. Shortly after arriving at Gombe, Goodall observed a chimp she'd named David Graybeard: "I saw David reach out, pick a wide blade of grass, and trim it carefully so that it could more easily be poked into the narrow passage in the termite mound," Goodall wrote in her book Through a Window. "Not only was he using the grass as a tool--he was, by modifying it to suit a special purpose, actually showing the crude beginnings of tool-making. What excited telegrams I had sent off to Louis Leakey.... Humans were not, after all, the only tool-making animals."

Tool-making and tool use are learned skills. And since young chimps spend much of their early lives with their mothers, Lonsdorf had a hunch that a mother's success at termite fishing influences the abilities of her offspring. If the mother is impatient or inept at threading the grass blades into the winding tunnels of the mounds, the theory went, her young will be equally unskilled.

To test her hypothesis, Lonsdorf has spent several seasons at Gombe collecting field data. On a typical day, she rises at 4:30 a.m., wolfs down several peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, drinks as many glasses of water, and grabs a pack containing camera equipment, Clif Bars, binoculars, and rain gear. Having selected a study subject the previous night, she hikes to the site where the animal had bedded down the night before. With any luck, she arrives before the chimp wakes.

Among her tools for gathering and organizing field data are a video camera and a sophisticated software program--a far cry from the pencils and pads young Jane employed early on. "Video is fantastic because you have everything, and you have it forever," says Lonsdorf. "So if someone asks me years from now, 'Did you ever check to see if they were right- or left-handed?' I can go look. If you're talking into a voice recorder, that information is lost. If you weren't noticing that or deciding to record it, it's gone."

Lonsdorf can draw on the documents housed at Minnesota. Using Goodall's early notes and other data, she can trace the transfer of such termite-fishing skills through several generations. For example, if an adult chimp is an above-average fisher, Lonsdorf can examine the eating and activity habits of her mother and grandmother to determine whether they too possessed such skills. Her preliminary analysis suggests a connection, but as with human learning, other factors can complicate the outcome.

Studying chimpanzee behavior, Lonsdorf says, may eventually give us a glimpse into the roots of our own human behavior. "Chimps are inherently interesting to people because of their similarities and genetic-relatedness to us," she says. (In DNA structure, humans and chimps differ by little more than 1 percent.)

Similarly, just as human culture varies by geographic locale, so too do the behaviors that make up chimp culture. Termite fishing, for example, is not practiced in all chimpanzee communities. "I'm interested in culture--the fact that we can see local and regional differences in chimpanzees that have no explanation based on ecology or genetics or the environment," says Lonsdorf. "It gives me a clue of why I eat rice with a fork and my friend eats rice with a chopstick."

Studying termite fishing also may suggest ways in which studies of human anthropology may come up short. "These [termite-fishing] tools are vegetation," notes Lonsdorf, "so they're not going to be saved in any archaeological site. That opens up a whole new realm. What are the tools that early humans might have used that we don't even know about because they're not preserved?"

Lonsdorf won't complete her doctoral work until the spring of 2003, but she's already putting her experience with the Gombe chimps to good work. She is occasionally asked to speak to community groups. With the release of Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees, she's expected to serve as an educational resource for science educators and school groups. These are opportunities she relishes.

"People say to me, 'The chimps are so much like us. I can't believe they use tools and I can't believe they do this and that.' And I'll tell them some obscure fact about animal behavior--about a male bird that incubates the eggs because the female is too wiped out from breeding--and they'll think that's fascinating. People relate easily to chimps, more so than other animals, but that opens the door to telling them about all kinds of other neat animal-behavior facts and findings."

Still, Lonsdorf is wary of being seen as Jane Goodall's heir. "The thing that's a fallacy is that anyone is the next Jane Goodall," she says. "Nobody can fill a lecture hall like Jane can. Nobody did what she did. Nobody went out there in the Sixties by themselves and walked around looking for chimps. Nobody's going to be able to replace her."

Perhaps not. But Lonsdorf is among those making sure that Goodall's work continues to evolve and benefit future generations--of chimps, and humans.

Hoekstra is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.