Treasuring the Pearl of Africa – by Landry Green

Landry Green (Twitter: @melesandry) completed her MZool in Zoology with Herpetology at Bangor University in 2019. In September 2018 she was one of the first students to take part in the primatology field course in Kibale National Park, Uganda. This is her story.

Photos: Alex Georgiev

Landry with her project group in Kibale (from L: Laura, India, Robert, and Iosifina)

I never considered myself a ‘people person’ – I much preferred animals. 

This was emphasised by my 8 years working in customer service/retail jobs where you, unfortunately, get to experience some of the worst sides of people. 

During my early 30s I decided on a career change, hoping to realise my childhood dreams of working with animals. 

I went back to school and got onto my dream degree – Zoology with Herpetology, at Bangor University (Wales, UK).

I had no idea of the adventures that awaited my four years in Bangor (or the changes to how I viewed my own species).

In September 2018, as I prepared for my final year, I had the opportunity to join the university’s first ever primatology field trip to Uganda, as a field course assistant.

While herpetology – the focus of my degree – is the study of reptiles and amphibians, primatology is the study of monkeys, apes and other primates. 

It’s a bit of change, but I jumped at the chance to learn about this charismatic group of animals while gaining new field skills. (Was this the start of my drawing closer to people?)

I also hoped to impart some of my student and life experiences onto my fellow students who were at earlier stages of their learning. (Why would I care? There was definite change in the air.)

I haven’t travelled much as an adult, had never been to Africa and my limited knowledge of Uganda was heavily influenced by media accounts of the country’s violent history. 

Originating from Northern Ireland, I’m no stranger to violence and political unrest, so I mentally prepared for a country in bloody turmoil.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a flourishing country with a booming tourist industry, a drastic change from its turbulent past. Northern Ireland could learn a few lessons.

Spotting primates with the help with field assistants Erimos and James (and a bunch of other students from Bangor in the back)

What was my favourite thing about Uganda? It’s easy to say ‘all of it’, given the effect the country had on me.

What about ‘seeing chimpanzees in the wild’ – surely this is a life-changing event for anyone, let alone a zoologist with a growing interest in primates?

But ultimately, the most memorable part of Uganda I brought home with me were the people I met there. Yes, I had changed.

During part of the trip, groups of students were assigned a Field Guide to take us around the rainforest of Kibale National Park to learn about the primates that lived there.

My group’s Field Guide, Robert, had been working in the rainforest since 1984 – when I was a mere year old, and my much younger group mates weren’t even born.

Over 30 years experience in the forest was telling and invaluable to my time there – he could identify a tree species from 50m away, a monkey from a split-second rustle in the tree canopy high above us, or what bird that was singing in the distance.

But I also found myself interested in his life and experiences in Uganda, his family, traditions and beliefs. 

I was most surprised to find that despite having met countless foreign students and researchers, Robert had rarely left the immediate area, and never his country. Kibale was his world.

Robert teaching his project students about trees and measurements in the forest.

He asked me about my life and family back home, my studies, and about the ‘forests of the UK’, which I had to painfully inform him were few and far between and drastically different from the rainforests of Uganda. 

I felt we had bonded through getting to know each other, with mutual curiosity about our respective unfamiliar worlds.

I wasn’t the only student to bond with their Guide during our time in Kibale, and our leaving day was a very emotional one for students and Guides alike. 

Robert wasn’t the only Ugandan I got speaking to, though I didn’t get the same length of time to share with the minibus drivers, researchers or chefs as I did with Robert. 

I left the country full of emotion, and nod enthusiastically every time I hear Uganda referred to as “the pearl of Africa”.

In nature, a pearl starts off as a piece of grit that gets stuck in an oyster’s soft tissue, and over many years gets shaped and developed into the smooth, iridescent object we value as a precious gem.

Indeed, Uganda has worked hard to shape itself into the rare beauty we know it as today and has many aspects reminiscent of the colourful iridescence of a pearl. 

But for me, the Ugandan people, like Robert, are what make it truly rare and remarkable. 

I have realised more than ever how special humans can be and how I am, actually, more of a ‘people person’ than I ever thought possible.

The Day I Met the Chimpanzees of Kibale – by Brogan Mace

Brogan (when she met a baboon at the Makerere University Biological Field Station in Kibale National Park). Photo: Alex Georgiev

Brogan Mace completed her MZool degree in Zoology with Animal Behaviour at Bangor University in 2019. She was one of the first students who came to Uganda in September 2018 on Bangor’s field course in primatology in Kibale National Park. She tells us about her first encounter with wild chimpanzees.

Thick undergrowth obscures our path. We step over huge tree roots and duck under low hanging vines. Up ahead, our guide stops and stares into what looks to us as an impenetrable wall of foliage. Then, he points. We follow the line of his finger and there, through the understory, a glimpse of black hair. 

Something, or someone, is out there.

Photo: Brogan Mace

She moves up onto a fallen log and is now unobstructed. Cautious eyes, sclera black, peer out from a hairless face. We all gape in wonder and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck raise. She turns and wanders further into the forest and we follow her in palpable excitement. 

In the distance, screams herald the arrival of the rest of her party. We rush to the next clearing and can scarcely believe our luck. All around us, on the ground and high up in the trees, are the chimpanzees of Kibale National Park.

Brogan (left) watching primates in Kibale with colleagues. Photo: Alex Georgiev

When we arrived in Uganda, Bangor University’s first primate-based field trip, we were greeted by a wall of heat – vastly different to the famously cold, wet weather of North Wales in the UK. A long minibus journey later, passing through amazing landscapes so different from back home, we arrived at our first stop – the Makerere University Biological Field station inside Kibale National Park, which would be home for the next two weeks. We would go on to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park and be surrounded by elephants, be dazzled by the busy-ness of Entebbe, stand on the shores of Lake Victoria as ibis fly overhead. But one place stands out in my mind and in my heart: Kibale. 

Kibale National Park is a gem hidden within Uganda. The tropical forest, covering almost 800km², is home to one of the highest densities of primates in Africa, including a number of habituated groups of chimpanzees. These apes are the star attraction here and have been observed by people for over half a decade. We’ve gained much scientific understanding of them and ourselves through them, with several research groups studying different chimpanzee communities within the park. 

Brogan (eyes closed, second from the right on front row) with fellow primatologists from Bangor University after their hour of watching chimpanzees at Kanyanchu in Kibale NP. Photo: Izzy Winder.

We, like many a tourist before us, made our way to the Kanyanchu Visitor Centre and, after a briefing from the rangers of Ugandan Wildlife Authority, embarked into the forest to search for the elusive chimps. There are strict rules visitors to the forest must follow and with good reason. Chimpanzees are one of our closest living relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA and, consequently, they suffer from many of the same ailments as us. In humans, a cold is relatively harmless but for chimpanzees, colds can be fatal. As such, those who are ill cannot go on the trek. Even when healthy, you shouldn’t approach chimpanzees closer than about 10 metres. These apes are incredibly important to both tourism, conservation, and science and are rightfully well protected.

Photo: Brogan Mace

We spent our time with the chimps quiet and observant, soaking in the glory of the forest and its inhabitants, surrounded by a chorus of bird and insect song. Many chimpanzee dramas unfold: friends spat over ripe fruit or mating privileges; alliances are forged and broken in the throes of chimpanzee politics. 

The day we visited we were lucky to be surrounded by so many chimps. They moved all around us, graceful in the trees despite the bulk of some males. Their screams ran through me as a juvenile is denied a share of his mother’s fruit and throws a fit. A female approaches a dominant male, pant grunting a respectful greeting.

A juvenile peers downs at us from high in the branches above, seemingly unperturbed as we grin in awe and aim our cameras for a series of snaps. 

On a mossy branch an infant takes a few bumbling steps, learning the ins and outs of his forested world. His mother watches carefully, never more than an arms-length away. 

Photo: Brogan Mace

An adult male carefully folds lush branches into what will be his carefully constructed bed of leaves for a daytime nap. Once complete, he reclines back and stares into the dappled canopy above. I can’t help but wonder what a chimpanzee thinks of in those moments.

Photo: Brogan Mace

It became clear that, like humans, each chimpanzee has a personality of their own.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from the group, and as we pile back into the minibus I know I will cherish those memories forever. But the reminders of the threats to my beloved chimpanzees and their environment surround us – risk of disease from ecotourism, the armed guards who served to protect us tourists also protect the chimps from poachers, and the ever-expanding tea and palm plantations reducing forest space. We’re at risk of these becoming just treasured memories for me, and a mere story to others. 

Chimp’s Knackers, Haemorrhoid Birds and Other Interesting Observations… – by William Bradley (Bangor University)

Will at the Equator (Photo: Shannon Cartwright)

William Bradley took part in Bangor University’s first Uganda Field Course in September 2018. The blog post below was written as an assignment for the module. It is published here with permission.

Chimp’s Knackers, Haemorrhoid Birds and Other Interesting Observations…

A guest blog post by William Bradley (Y2, BSc Zoology with Conservation, Bangor University)

Having waited until I was in my late forties before embarking on my university education, I already knew that I may be presented with some challenges that an earlier start could have avoided. The week before I started I went to get wax removed from my ears so that I would be able to hear in lectures properly. The referral to audiology and subsequent diagnosis of “significant hearing loss” came as quite a shock.

Fast forward twelve months and I find myself on the adventure of a lifetime, a field course in the Ugandan rainforest, studying primates. This opportunity is a dream come true, having never been out of Europe, Africa was somewhere I never thought I would be lucky enough to visit and monkeys were just the cherry on the cake!!! It is said that you can’t have your cake and eat it, so I wasn’t too put out when I discovered that tracking primates required hushed voices, the things our field guide pointed out were said in hushed tones so as not to alarm our quarry. This is when I thought that I had discovered that chimps have three testicles….

It was our second day in the rainforest, our guide was leading us through the forest and pointing out anything of interest he discovered along the trail. Elephants had passed by not too long before and had left plenty of evidence, huge footprints in the soft mud track which had filled with water, enormous piles of dung which we were told scored a ‘one’ for freshness based on how high the pile remained (dung that has aged approximately a week since being expelled would score a five as it was flattened out by the rain). Who would have thought there would be a numerical scoring system for what the elephants had expelled whilst travelling through the forest, I expect the elephants don’t care what their dump has scored – “congratulations Jumbo darling a perfect one”.

Will Bradley COLLAGE 2
Signs of elephant presence (Photos: William Bradley)

So, what then about the chimp’s knackers?

Shortly after the discovery of elephant dung our guide became excited, pointed to the floor and pointed out where a chimp’s testicles had left their mark on the muddy track. “Look, chimp’s knackers !!!” I assumed the chimp must have taken a short break on his journey, sitting in the mud with his jewels sinking into the soft earth. I looked closely and noticed that there were three or four small depressions in the earth. Surely it was only this chimp that had multiple testicles? I had heard of Polyorchidism in individuals but surely not in an entire species – otherwise I would have read about this phenomenon somewhere the scientific literature.

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Chimp’s knackers leaving an imprint in the mud!? (Photo: William Bradley)

A feeling of calm realisation descended upon me, not dissimilar to that of déjà vu. I like to call it my “sanity check”, the realisation that something isn’t quite right. This triggers some automatic responses in my brain, not always pleasant. It was around the time that I had re-visualised around eight chimp scrotums from a variety of sources, Jane Goodall films, BBC documentaries and Monkey Business, that I managed to stop the flash of images in my brain. They all were quite sizeable, full and of course rather a dark shade, yet none seemed to have any unusual configuration just the usual paired arrangement.

As my confusion was almost out of control, the ongoing battle between the devil and the angel, one on each shoulder produced a victor. I peered over the shoulder of the person in front of me who was diligently sketching the imprint left in the mud. It was clearly labelled “Chimp’s KNUCKLES”. What a joy.

The remainder of our forest walk that afternoon gave me no cause for confusion. A fantastic insight into the ecosystem of the tropical rainforest. Of course, like most people I had seen ‘The Jungle’ on documentaries and had the misguided notion that it would be familiar however I couldn’t have been more wrong. The continuous feed of wonders proved almost too much.  An overload of beautiful colours, sweet perfumes and somewhat nasty odours (usually the elephant dung) coupled with the warm and humid atmosphere were almost too pleasurable to withstand for such an extended period – yet this was only the second day on our rainforest adventure.

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The colours and sights of the rainforest (Photos: William Bradley)

I began to wonder how the rest of our group might be coping with the additional pressure of being able to hear everything that the guide drew our attention to. The buzzing of a swarm of bees collecting nectar from high up in the tree canopy, distant calls from primates that could be used to identify the species and the nearby sounds of branches and leaves being disturbed by monkeys which gave a clue to their location.

A particularly frequent sound was the call of the African haemorrhoid cuckoo. We didn’t manage to catch a glimpse of the bird so I’m afraid there’s no photograph to show but I did found an illustration in a guidebook. It was then that I realised that this bird is actually called the African emerald (not haemorrhoid) cuckoo.

Can You Spot Them?- by Suha Subhani (Bangor University)

Suha Subhani took part in the first Uganda Field Course in September 2018. The blog post below was written as an assignment for the module. It is published here with permission.

Suha on the lookout for monkeys in Kibale (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

Can You Spot Them?

A guest blog post by Suha Subhani (Y2, MZool Zoology with Animal Behaviour, Bangor University)

The trip to Uganda was better than anything I had imagined. From the forests of Kibale National Park (KNP) to the sprawling savanna of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), there is not one thing I would change about this eye-opening trip. Of all the moments that enthralled me, those that brought me most joy were times when I realised how I had procured and developed new skills required for working in the field: accurately identifying and sexing the animals we studied, understanding and explaining their behaviour, as well as describing the environment they lived in. These are skills our outstanding field guides from Makerere University Biological Field Station (MUBFS) have mastered so thoroughly that even from quick glimpses at the animals and their environment they could ascertain and provide a great deal of information. This expertise left me in awe. I was not sure I would be able to obtain any of those skills, especially within the time we had. However, during our data collecting for our projects, I realised that by observing our guides, using their eagerly provided knowledge and by simply being exposed to the rainforest on a daily basis, I was slowly gaining the abilities I admired so much. Of course, I am no expert like our guides, but by the end of the trip I no longer felt it was impossible to one day hopefully, eventually, hone the ability to accurately and efficiently describe and analyse an environment I am working in and the animals that it sustains. I recognised improvement daily, as I discerned the different species of primates in the rainforest, identified what sex an individual was as it jumped rapidly from tree to tree and described the several behaviours it was displaying.

Mother (possibly) and infant black-and-white colobus. Infants are born snow white. Their fur colour develops as the grow, often greying after 2-3 months. (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

We encountered almost all the primate species that dwelt within the rainforest. Most common were the Black and White Colobus monkeys or Western guereza (Colobus guereza occidentalis); a habituated group that was often seen quite close to the MUBFS. Another fairly common species was the Ashy Red Colobus (Pilicocolobus tephrosceles), which my group and I studied for our field project. Some were rarer and more difficult to locate, a prime example being the L’Hoest’s monkey (Allochrocebus lhoesti), which during the whole trip we only caught a quick glimpse of once scampering across the trail. Many of these primates often moved in large groups, especially the first two mentioned.

A rare glimpse of  L’Hoest’s monkeys on Karambi Road at Kanyawara, Kibale National Park (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

You would think that would make them easy to locate. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Whether open canopy or dense foliage, the first few days trying to spy these monkeys proved quite tedious. Their habit of spending most of their time high in the canopy made that task no easier. Our guides however, with sharp and experienced eyes were always able to spot them, even if it was only a single individual sitting still on a branch, covered by leaves. This was a skill that baffled me. How do you spot something sitting so still, something so well hidden behind all the foliage, high in the canopy?

Spotting monkeys high up in the canopy: a skill that takes time to develop (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

And it was not that alone. From whatever angle they saw the individual, our guides could almost always identify the sex of the animal and what it may be feeding on in the trees, an ability that was extremely helpful when my groups field guide, Richard, aided us in gathering data for our project. These were the talents I not only admired, but sincerely wanted to master.

Fortunately, we spent every day in the forest, so I took every opportunity to try for myself, keeping my eyes up towards the canopy, scanning branches individually as quickly as I could as we trekked through the forest. I looked for any small movement in the trees, listened for any rustling of leaves and branches, and tried to sharpen my eyes to distinguish a shape of a monkey sitting in the tree tops. At first it seemed too difficult, often others could spot them before myself. However, as the days passed, and mostly during the collection of our group data, I improved. Keeping my attention in the trees, and my ears and eyes on alert, I finally began to be able to spot a monkey from afar, moving or not in the trees.

Catching a quick, partial glimpse of a red colobus travelling high above in the trees – can you tell its sex? (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

By the end of the trip, I was fully capable of identifying an individual in any amount foliage, and provide its species and sex, as well as its level of maturity. I was also able to accurately describe its behaviour, monitoring its movements and gestures as it clambered in the canopy above. From barely being able to notice them, I was rather surprised at realising the extent of these skills I had come to acquire. There was also, I must admit, I great sense of satisfaction and pride.

Uganda was a mixture of excitement, adventure, and wonder. The skills I am proud I have managed to obtain in our short time there have given me hope for a future where I can successfully work in the field, a future I can now appreciate with more depth than I have had before. But more than anything I am grateful. This experience has given me the chance to understand the requirements of working in the field, as well as the many circumstances that come with it. I have come to appreciate that although it is a most enjoyable, it can be an extremely challenging and strenuous task. However, I have also realised how enthusiastic I am to facing those challenges, and how immensely I would enjoy learning and perfecting the skills I was privileged enough to witness and make a start in adapting. Our field guides have inspired me to carry on working at these abilities, and to look for opportunities that will allow me to do so. I could not be happier with our time in Uganda, and am thankful I was able to be a part of such an amazing and fulfilling adventure. I cannot wait to go back to the field someday, maybe even Kibale. Afterall, I did promise Richard I would.

In the field with my project group, including our brilliant and hilarious field guide Richard (middle, top tow). The other members are David (first from the left), Kate (front centre), and Ann-Sophie (third on R top row). (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

Brick-loving Colobus – by David Keeble (Bangor University)

David Keeble took part in the first Uganda Field Course in September 2018. The blog post below was written as an assignment for the module. It is published here with permission.

David (centre) when watching colobus high up in the canopy (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

Brick-loving Colobus

A guest blog post by David Keeble (Y2, BSc Zoology, Bangor University)

Towards the end of the summer I had an opportunity of a lifetime, a field course trip to Kibale National Park, Uganda, studying primate behaviour. It was the best experience of life in the field I could have ever wished for. The trip gave me a full understanding of what it was like to live and study in the field, where anything could happen at any moment. One of the highlights of the trip was during our data collection days for our group projects. On the last day of data collection, we had the privilege to witness red colobus monkeys gnawing on and licking bricks.

Red colobus monkeys gnawing on one corner of the brickhouse by the forests edge (Photo: David Keeble)

We set out like our other data collection days at 7:30am local time (2 hours ahead of GMT) to go in search of the group of red colobus monkeys. It took a while before we eventually found the group and when we did we started straight away with our observations. At first, we were focusing our attention to the trees in which the monkeys were resting, feeding and foraging etc. The group were quite active and after a while had started to move across to trees that were behind us. I followed the monkeys round to the other trees and carried on observing them. One of the others in my group had then spotted some members of the red colobus group on the ground by a brickhouse, bearing in mind that these monkeys are arboreal this was quite an unusual sight to see. I went over to take a look at these monkeys and got my camera out in hope of snapping some pictures of these colobus on the ground. After a while, I wondered how close I could get to the red colobus without frightening them. I walked round to a ditch behind one of the brick-houses that were within the area we were in (there were three scattered around in a triangle-like shape). I laid on the floor by the ditch with my camera to get photos of some of the colobus that were about 15 metres in-front of me. Not a single monkey was bothered by my presence, they just carried on with what they were doing, gnawing on the bricks. I was amazed that they weren’t bothered by my presence but also intrigued that they were gnawing on these bricks. It is a behaviour that I had heard of prior to witnessing, but never something I would have thought that I would see in the wild! It was breath-taking to be so close and witness a behaviour that is quite uncommon to see in the wild.

Three red colobus monkeys (one adult, two sub-adults) trying to gnaw at the same point on the brickhouse, taking it in turns (Photo: David Keeble)

After several minutes I told the others in my group to come over and watch the colobus from where I was because of the great view I had of observing them. Around the brickhouse where I was looking there seemed to be between 7 and 10 colobus monkeys all gnawing away at the bricks. On the other brickhouse, which was by the forests edge, were around 20 colobuses, all bunched up together in smaller groups, of 3 or 4, trying to get at the same part of the brickhouse. Again, the colobus took little/no notice when the others in my group came around to where I was, which was fascinating as I would have thought that the colobus would have run off and have been very cautious when on the ground. This is due to prior knowledge of them being arboreal and being a predated species that chimpanzees like to hunt. My assumption for this is that the red colobus have been habituated to humans due to the area being a hotspot for researches to come and conduct their studies on the different primate species, in particular chimpanzees.

An adult red colobus ‘screaming’ at a juvenile red colobus (juvenile possibly presenting). (Photo: David Keeble)

I soon realised that we were within the core of the group as there were red colobus all around us, in the trees and on the ground, with large numbers around the brick houses. To be surrounded by all these colobuses is something that I will never be able to recreate, it certainly felt like we were part of the red colobus group. Just watching the colobus in their natural environment is something I’m going to cherish, seeing all the juveniles playing with each other and some of the adults fighting, along with those just gnawing away at the bricks. When I looked closely at some of the individuals it was obvious that they had been gnawing on the bricks as their mouths were red from the bricks. It looked like they had lipstick on!We assumed that the bricks were ‘acting’ as a salt lick for the red colobus which was why they were gnawing away at the bricks to get at the salts contained within. This is an interesting area to look further into and to study more as there aren’t that many of papers on red colobus gnawing on bricks for salt.

Adult male red colobus in-between gnawing on the bricks, red dust seen around mouth (Photo: David Keeble)

To have been privileged with the observation of such a unique and under-studied behaviour, and to have sat within in the core of the red colobus group without disrupting their natural behaviour was an experience of a lifetime. The trip has given me a greater awareness of what life is like in the field and a clearer idea of what I would like to do after university. There is still so much that is yet to be discovered for all species that the options for the field are limitless. It was an incredible experience that I would encourage any budding zoologist to go on as it ticks all the boxes and so many more!

“I want one!” – by Zoe Rule (Bangor University)

Zoe Rule took part in the first Uganda Field Course in September 2018. The blog post below was written as an assignment for the module. It is published here with permission.

“I want one!”

A guest blog post by Zoe Rule (Y2, BSc Zoology, Bangor University)

Seeing new, strange or funky-looking animals in a picture, on a screen or in real-life trigger something in everyone; I think anyway. But then maybe that’s just me being a classic animal-lover. I was overwhelmed by such species on my recent trip to the jaw-dropping locations in Uganda, east Africa. I was lucky enough to visit Kibale National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park, with my now very good friends. The bumpy roads between took us to incredible new worlds including the Botanical Gardens in Entebbe, Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary in the Magombe Swamp and the Kanyanchu Visitor Centre for chimpanzee tracking. Not to forget the numerous pit stops along the way for photo opportunities and sights of the local wildlife. Those 2 weeks in Uganda were, and still are, the best 2 weeks of my life.

Zoe (first on the right) in Kibale with her research team during the Uganda Field Course 2018 (L to R: Erimos, Megan, Josh) (Photo: Alexander Georgiev)

“I want one” came out of my mouth in excited outbursts countless times whenever I saw the exotic species roaming all around me. Even the cows and goats on the roadside by villages made my eyes sparkle. We hadn’t even stepped out the gate of Makerere University Biological Field Station at Kibale when we spotted a group of the thumbless black and white colobus monkeys, which was quickly followed by the appearance of a lonesome blue monkey.

Male black and white colobus resting in the middle canopy of a Celtis durandii, a favourite for every meal (Photo: Zoe Rule)

It didn’t take long to learn that the forest is a very special place and it was heartwarming to feel the enthusiasm from the field assistants and other staff. They show insane amounts of passion through their bright eyes and big smiles – I aspire to have such emotions toward my work in the future. From strangler trees to trees I can’t even attempt to pronounce and fruits that make elephants drunk – the Balanites wilsoniana – now that one I can say correctly… I think. The elephants will eat the fruit whole and when it passes through their digestive tract is releases some magic stuff to make the elephant, well, drunk! I guess I learned elephants know how to have a good time. I was also taught that they’re actually really quite dangerous in the forest and you must take great care if you come across a group of them on your walk.


A field guide pointing out the fruits of the Balanites wilsoniana in 1+ week old elephant dung (Photo: Zoe Rule)

Most evenings we would have lectures and talks by a range of inspiring people including previous/current students looking at mother-child relationships in both humans and chimpanzees. Martin (another field guide of ours) talked about the giant forest hog, which I didn’t even know existed but now I know basic things about their lifestyle and why they are popular with poachers. Dr Emily Otali is the field director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, which means it’s her job to send field researchers out on specific tasks and keeping track of the long-term data collection.

When I was given the task to write about my favourite part of the field trip I couldn’t decide on what topic to choose, in fact it wasn’t that I couldn’t decide it was that I had a complete mind blank. I looked back over the photos I had taken and the little notes I had taken down to remember and then it came to me. I wanted to write about something that meant something to me, but also meant something to the people in Kibale where their work is their life.

The Kibale Snare Removal Program (KSRP) came to mind immediately and so did the name Emily Otali. Richard Wrangham founded the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in 1987, in collaboration with the Uganda Wildlife Authority; in 1997 the KSRP was established. Presently here at Kibale there are PhD students carrying out research on different behaviours, adaptations to the social groups and even looking at the evolution of human language and how we can link that to chimpanzee communication. Alex Georgiev, our lecturer at Bangor University, worked with the team, too, so it was great to be out in the field with him because he really showed true eagerness and a want for us as students to learn something from these guest talks.

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The Kibale Snare Removal Program works to reduce illegal activity in the national park with particular focus on the snares being set up by poachers. Poachers set snares in order to trap bushmeat species like bushpigs and duikers. Unfortunately chimpanzees get caught in the traps and they are ultimately tied to a pole by a tight wire or sometimes nylon wire. This painful trap manages to get right down to the bone in some cases – any animal is stuck in the snare until the poacher comes back. Sometimes they escape but infection of the wound can be fatal.

The three main goals the project works hard toward are: forest preservation and wildlife protection, getting the community aware and involved, and the education of the wider community. The five guys in the patrol team spend 26 days a month in the forest searching for the snares or any other illegal activity the poachers have attempted. Thanks to them hundreds of snares every year are removed from the forest and there is now a map identifying the areas where poachers are most active. It isn’t just the chimpanzees that are saved it is all the wildlife in the forest.

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James Kyomuhendo, long-term field assistant of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, attempting to free a giant pangolin from a snare in the north part of the Kanyawara section of Kibale National Park in 2006. (Photo: Alexander Georgiev)

A couple of days before Emily Otali gave us her talk on her work we went chimpanzee tracking at Kanyanchu. Here I saw and sat (at least 5 metres ish) by a chimpanzee whose name means, “Surprised”.  I liked his name; he seemed sweet and kept himself to himself. I soon came to learn his mother had been trapped in a snare. He was there, too, watching. On a less saddening note I found out that figs are his favourite fruit and there were plenty of Ficus species around… Although that hardly makes up for the pain he must have felt and still been feeling because of poachers.

“Surprised” lying on his back resting near Entali, another other male at Kanyanchu, Kibale National Park (Photo: Zoe Rule)

I went to Uganda to answer a question on the travelling behaviour of monkey species based on their diets, but I came back with so much more information and that came with a bunch of questions, too. I feel this piece of writing has helped all the information I have collected and stuffed into my brain make sense. The Kibale Chimpanzee Project and the Snare Removal Project are doing amazing work in protecting the immense stretch of the national park and I hope the poachers will cease their “I want one” logic. Get more information on their dedicated work at


See also: Chimps losing lives and limbs to the ‘landmines of the forest’ (Guardian story)

Student blogs from Uganda!

This blog has been inactive for waaaay too long! Since the last post (August 2017), I’ve taught a lot of students at Bangor University about primates and human evolution, went to Zanzibar a couple of times to study the red colobus there and developed a new field course in primatology in Uganda!

The trip we did in September 2018 took me back to Kibale National Park – the site of my PhD research on chimpanzees. It was an emotional return and I saw the forest and the monkeys in a totally new way through the eyes of our students, most of whom have never been to Africa before. Not having to focus on data collection for my dissertation, I was able to take in so much more of the place and the wonderful wildlife there. It was just beautiful.

To share some of that incredible experience we will publish here some of the best blog post written by our students about their trip to Uganda. Stay tuned!

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Postdoc to Faculty (2017)


Moving to a new position as faculty is both exciting and a little daunting. Having spent my entire postgraduate career so far in the USA, first as a PhD student and then as a postdoc, taking up a job at a UK university in March this year has been an interesting transition. In the last 5 months here at Bangor University, in Wales, I have been figuring out the way teaching is done in the UK (a lot of team-taught modules, a lot of forms and meetings involved in marking papers, exams, and theses), figuring out my own teaching load for the next academic year, and supervising 10 undergraduate students as they begin work on their final year research projects over the summer.

On the research activity front I’ve been learning about all the new agencies that one can apply for funding here. The EU’s Research Council is technically still an option, and then there are the two main Research Councils of the UK, the remit of which my work easily falls under –NERC and BBSRC*. I’ve even managed to submit one rather succinct application for a modest amount of starter funds to the Royal Society and am preparing two further applications that would, if successful, provide studentships and some research funds for a couple of PhD students.

This latter part is one of the main differences I’ve noticed so far between UK and US academia.  Funding for PhD students here is virtually non-existent at the School/Department or University level and always has to come from outside sources. British PhDs are typically 3 – 3.5 years long (compared to 5 – 7 years in the USA) and are often pre-designed by the supervisor (unless the student comes with their own ideas and money). There is no time (or £) here for a student to spend 2 years doing coursework, reading widely within and around their subfield to gradually discover where their interests take them as they put together their thesis research proposal.

The downside of this arrangement is that as new faculty you don’t just get PhD students through the regular annual intake of the Department you’re at but you rather have to compete with other faculty at your institution and beyond to secure a studentship for a project of your choice.

The upside is that this system really pushes you as a researcher to identify and develop good topics for PhD projects that would be feasible to address in the span of 3.5 years. And coming up with new ideas and making plans for future discoveries is one of the most fun parts of academia, really.

Having spent 2 – 3 years figuring out my own PhD plans, I am now noticing that I’ve much improved in my ability to identify potential project ideas and can actually do this on a substantially tighter timeline than I was able to as a 1-st year student in grad school. Which is a relief. Both for me and, hopefully, for my future students.

One of the most exciting parts of the transition to being a newly independent researcher has been to decide where I want to go with my research in the future (both topically and geographically). As a postdoctoral researcher I was lucky enough to have PIs who allowed me considerable freedom in the types of studies I initiated or joined within the scope of their labs’ overall research programs. But now I was the one who had to set the direction for my own fledgling (currently 1-person) lab/research group.

There are few things in academia as exhilarating and a little terrifying as having a virtual blank piece of paper in front of you as the starting point for a new project, especially if the decisions you make now might conceivably make or break your career down the line. The options seem endless. All the things you’ve wanted to do for a while now but didn’t have the time and the money for. All the new things you didn’t know you wanted to do but have recently thought about as very cool things to do. So many things. Primate things.

To begin with, I wanted to start a new primate study in the wild. That narrows down the options a bit.

Studying primates requires a long-term investment: first because they are long-lived mammals and to get good data on some of the important questions that many primatologists are interested in can take a while; and second because initially it might be difficult to even see them long enough to collect any useful observations (unless one wants to study their population density, distribution and the ecology of their habitats; not so much if you’re interested in documenting their social lives or want to study their physiology by non-invasively collecting urine and faecal samples from individually recognisable animals).

Most wild primates are not too keen on being followed around by nosy humans on a daily basis – they usually flee if you try to approach them. Those who don’t – tend to try and steal your food (e.g. baboons and macaques that have become too comfortable with tourists in national parks or cities). One can, of course, study such groups – there are plenty of interesting questions to be addressed in conditions where humans and non-human primates interact regularly and sometimes come into conflict of varying intensity.

But if your chosen study species does not do well in areas where humans live, then you’d need to go away from cities and villages and find groups, which are generally weary of humans. Such groups need to be followed long enough in their wild habitat until they stop caring you are there and ignore you – a process called habituation. Habituation can take years if you want to study great apes, and months – for the smaller monkey species. Given the scarcity of funding and the pressure to produce publishable results fast, the prospect of starting out afresh with a group of primates that are initially afraid of you is not necessarily reassuring – so that is another thing to take into account when planning a new project.

In most cases, there are three options for starting a new study: (a) gain access to a well-established research site where primates have been already habituated and studied for a number of years; (b) start from scratch and be ready for a long period of investment with little to show for your work; or (c) find places where groups of primates are rather tolerant of human presence but have still been little studied by researchers.

Option (a) – joining a well-established long-term study – is appealing but it also has its drawbacks. Long-term primate research projects offer really well habituated animals, most often with detailed records on their life histories and demography (e.g. Kappeler & Watts 2012). A lot of existing experience and knowledge among past and current researchers working at such field sites can be a huge plus when starting out in primatology as a graduate student. But with decades worth of person hours already spent watching such groups of primates, the likelihood of you seeing something that nobody else has before is low. Not that this is all that matters but there is something to be said for spreading out to cover more ground in terms of research questions, species, and areas. Primates are not doing too well overall – in most places where they live their populations are under growing pressure from human-induced changes to their habitat (e.g. logging) and from hunting. Given that the presence of long-term research stations and projects has been shown to have some positive effect in terms of safe-guarding populations at least at the local level (e.g., Wrangham & Ross 2008) – the conservation case for going out to new places and establishing new long-term monitoring programs and researcher presence is strong. Finally, the fact that well established projects are so well established means that for a new PI, there would be limited opportunity to get involved in setting the direction of long-term research priorities and some topics might even be off-limits, given existing priority in areas of interest among senior investigators who have already invested in these studies years, and often decades, of work.

Option (b): going off and starting work with completely unhabituated primates is tempting, potentially hugely rewarding, but risky in the short term. Unless you have unlimited funding and very limited pressure to publish highly influential papers in the first few years of your new position as faculty – spending 1 or more years just getting primates to accept your presence, before you can even start collecting data at a reliable pace can be a problem. Additionally, since most of the time you’d be teaching back at the University, this work would have to be carried out primarily by students and postdocs (if you’re lucky enough to get funding for those). By the time their funding runs out (typically 2 years for a postdoc, and 3 – 3.5 for a PhD student) they should be able to show something for their efforts and be able to publish papers of their own. If they spend half their project time or longer chasing after primates with few direct observations to show for the frustrations of the habituation process – this would not be too good for their careers either. This is not to say that one cannot come up with a suitably interesting set of research questions around a study of totally unhabituated primates but this is a different topic.

After pondering the options above, the most appealing one to me, personally, was option (c) – finding a place where primates (or at least a group or two) are well enough habituated to human presence but are not already subject of a long-term study.

The next step was to identify a place where these two conditions were met but also, and even more importantly, make sure that the species in question would offer an opportunity to address exciting, and as yet unresolved questions in the fields of primatology and behavioural ecology.

Tomorrow I travel back to Africa, for the first time since the summer of 2011, to scope out one such potential location and meet a primate that I have never seen before.

More soon.


Twitter: @alexvgeorgiev // @BangorPrimates


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* On a related note, if you want to find out more about UK funding and how to go about it, check out this recent blog post:

New results from our Cayo Santiago rhesus study at IPS/ASP 2016 in Chicago!


My collaborators and I have four presentations at the Congress that will feature data from our study in Group S on Cayo Santiago, mostly collected during the unusual tenure of 11Z as alpha (mating season 2013).

On Monday, Megan Petersdorf (NUY) will talk about male facial colour and male-male competitive encounters

On Tuesday, Kevin Rosenfield (Roehampton Uni/Penn State) will talk about how females prefer looking at more masculine-faced males and then on Thursday, he will do a poster on the relationship between male face shape (width-to-height ratio) and male competitive ability and reproduction.

Finally, on Friday, I will have some data on male androgen levels and how they relate (or not) to rank, mating effort and fecundity.

Come and check them out!


You can also have a look at some related papers from my work on Cayo below:
(email me for a PDF if you don’t have access)

Breaking the succession rule: The costs and benefits of an alpha-status take-over by an immigrant rhesus macaque on Cayo Santiago

Oxidative stress as an indicator of the costs of reproduction among free-ranging rhesus macaques

Male quality, dominance rank and mating success in free-ranging rhesus macaques

The rise and fall of a male rhesus macaque: Part II

(Part I is here)

IMG_5512The mating season of 2013 was on. Monkey faces were turning redder all around. Both male and female rhesus macaques exhibit a reddening of their facial and ano-genital skin areas during this time of the year due to the rising levels of reproductive steroid hormones (androgens and estrogens, respectively).

It is at this time that many young males leave their natal groups and try to join new ones – to find new mates. Usually when they do so they join new groups relatively unobtrusively, at the periphery, without challenging the established dominance hierarchy among the resident males. This is why among rhesus macaques (at least on Cayo Santiago) male dominance rank is established via the seniority (or succession) rule. Males who have been in the group the longest, occupy the highest ranks. New arrivals take up the lowest positions and behave subordinately towards the rest of the males. As males higher-up in the dominance hierarchy die or emigrate to other groups (male may change groups several times during their lifetime), males below them in the hierarchy move up in rank. New arrivals have never been seen to fight for the alpha position on Cayo Santiago – they queue patiently to acquire higher-ranking slots.

This succession-based system of rank acquisition is unusual among primates that live in multi-male multi-female groups. Typically, the highest-ranking males in a group are young males in prime fighting condition. Fighting ability is often the key to get the alpha position because new males need to be able to overcome the incumbent alpha and also dominate all the other males who are already in the group. Unsurprisingly, in many primate species, males who become alphas are in better physical condition and are younger than males who do not become alphas. As they age their fighting ability declines and they are more likely to be challenged by in-coming young males. Rank and age usually show a bell-curve relationship – rank tends to increase as males approach adulthood, peaks in their prime years, after which it gradually (or sometimes, drastically) declines as fitter, stronger males take over.

Among rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago, however, this is not what happens. Alpha rank is not related to fighting ability but to tenure length – the duration a male has resided in his group. Thus, males who are clearly past their prime can retain their alpha ranking despite the fact that there are many younger males in their group who could beat them in a one-on-one contest.

In the first few months on Cayo Santiago my observations matched what I read about the succession-based ranking system. Then as the mating season began, something odd happened. 11Z, the alpha male from a large, dominant group, Group R, decided it was time to leave his natal group and find new females to mate with elsewhere.


He didn’t travel very far at all. He began making regular and very visible, aggressive incursions into our study group, with which Group R interacts on a daily basis and ranges over in many of the same areas of the island. All the high-ranking males in our Group S were very much intimidated. Some of them tried to put up a fight and show him who’s boss. Given his temperament and domineering presence, however, any attempts to prevent him from settling in the group or to make him acknowledge the seniority of the resident high-rankers failed miserably. Before long he had established himself as the undisputed alpha male of his new group. Such a direct take-over of the alpha position by an immigrant has never before been documented on Cayo Santiago.

The females did not seem to mind this new order one bit. They were very keen on flirting with 11Z and he was the most sexually successful male in the group this mating season. He also sired the most infants of all the males in Group S, even though a rather large number of females got pregnant from males from other groups (ca. 61% of all infants born).

But these reproductive rewards did not come cost-free to the new alpha. By the end of mating season, in July, he was knackered. He had lost a lot of weight. His belly now had wrinkles, with skin hanging where before there was the fat that fueled his sexual marathon. Soon his ribs began to show a bit, too. The energetic costs of mating effort in rhesus are high and they seem to have hit 11Z particularly bad. He was the weakest he had been since immigrating and taking over the alpha position in Group S. If someone was going to make a move on him, this was the time.

The mating season had ended but the resident males still had a problem with their new alpha. For several days after the middle of July we lost track 11Z.  Then on 23rd July we found him. Or whatever was left of him and his ego. He looked a shadow of his former self. Creeping on the edges of the group, hiding under bushes, skittish and afraid. He was no longer the alpha of the group. On closer inspection we saw wounds. A gash on the back of his head, a puncture not very far from his scrotum, on his rump, and a big tear on his inner thigh. The blood had already dried, for the most part, but several of the other males were still after him. On several occasions we witnessed prolonged chases, during which he was utterly defeated into retreat. Some of the lowest-ranking males in the group were now on the offensive, repeatedly targeting him for no particular reason. They wanted to really make sure he knew his new place – at the very bottom of the hierarchy of the group, which until a few days ago he dominated so successfully.

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To avoid constant harassment, 11Z kept a low profile. He stayed at the fringes of the group, only going in to feed in the feeding corrals, when other higher-ranking males had finished eating and left the area. He didn’t get many social comforts, either. Nobody was grooming him now as he didn’t want to risk approaching the core of the group where most of the females were hanging out during resting times. Over the months after his overthrow, he continued to lose weight. His ribs were now becoming very, very, visible. Compared to his peak form at the start of the mating season, he could hardly have been a more different macaque.

Several months later during the annual trapping season in January 2014 we were able to catch our study subjects and weigh them. 11Z had lost a lot of weight since last year. Of all the males he had the highest relative weight loss, relative to early 2013 (14.7% loss). This was bad news because usually during the birth season (which was now coming to an end), following the energetically exhausting mating season, males try to gain weight so that they have enough energy stored for the next mating season. A month or so from the start of the mating season of 2014, 11Z was at a huge disadvantage – not only he was very low in rank but his energetic condition would not allow him to participate in mating as actively as he did in 2013. His immune system didn’t seem to be doing that well either. When in January 2014 we measured his neopterin concentrations, which are indicative of inflammation, viral or bacterial infections, or other unpleasantness, they were very high – the highest of all males in Group S, in fact.

The gamble that he took when immigrating into Group S by overtaking the alpha position was successful in the short term but a very poor decision in the long term.

On a personal level, watching this highly political drama unfold over several months in 2013 on Cayo Santiago was enthralling. 11Z was a very charismatic, if a little too cocky, monkey. It was difficult not to be drawn in. It was also a rare opportunity for me to try and understand what factors explain the occurrence of the succession-based rank-acquisition system among the males on Cayo. Why is it that males so rarely (if ever) challenge for the top position when they move into a new group? Are the costs higher than the potential benefits?

Having read several papers that discuss the various acquisition strategies of primates a key theme that emerges is that it’s all about relative costs and benefits. If the benefits of acquiring the alpha position quickly are high – i.e. a male can sire most infants in the group – then direct take-overs are more likely (provided the costs of that are not too great). But if the benefits of the alpha position are not that high (i.e. a male cannot monopolize reproduction in his new group) then there’s no pressure for him to challenge for the alpha slot so he doesn’t. In species that have seasonal breeding (like rhesus) it is difficult for one male to monopolize all reproduction, as many females come into estrous at the same time. He just cannot be in multiple places at once, guarding all females that are about to ovulate and conceive. As a result reproductive skew in rhesus groups on Cayo Santiago is low to moderate (typically less than about 30% top male paternity share) and although on average high rank has some advantages, the alpha males are not always the most reproductively successful males in their groups. Female choice also plays a role and many females prefer mating with males other than the alpha, further eroding any reproductive advantages that might come with the top-ranking position.

Yet, despite, this somewhat bleak outlook regarding the benefits of being alpha in rhesus macaques, 11Z seemed rather keen on it. And once he got to be alpha in his new group, he didn’t do too badly. The benefits he obtained were not very high (he sired only 4 infants of 27 born in the group this year) but they were still higher than what the other males got, with only five of the remaining 14 males in Group S siring any offspring at all.

So probably taking over the alpha position was the better option, compared to 11Z joining quietly at the bottom of the hierarchy. Why don’t other males do the same thing, then?

Perhaps it was the character of 11Z. He grew up as the son of a high-ranking female in the large Group R. Early on in his adulthood (in 2009) he participated in a series of revolutionary coalitions that led to the overthrow of the then alpha of that group. 11Z became the new alpha of his natal group and was remarkably successful in siring babies over the next few years. Before joining Group S he had already produced 37 infants, a number that puts him very near the top of the list of the all-time most reproductively successful males on Cayo Santiago. He never knew anything but success. Was there something about his personality, together with his strong physical condition, that made him more likely than other males to take risks?

And if the benefits of the alpha position in rhesus groups were really that low as to make males unwilling to challenge for it, why do they have to challenge for it in the first place? If something is not worth fighting over, why did we see so much resistance to 11Z’s entry to Group S, resistance than continued sporadically throughout the mating season and culminated in his overthrow in late July, by which time his condition had deteriorated significantly.

Seeing the resident males try to oppose 11Z during his tenure as alpha produced some other unexpected observations. On several occasions they seemed to join forces, acting together to attack him. This was another thing that rhesus macaques were not supposed to be doing – forming agonistic coalitions. Many primates have strong male-male bonds and they often act together against rivals. Such behavior was thought to be entirely absent in rhesus macaques, until in 2009 a series of events in Group R showed otherwise. That series of revolutionary coalitions, in which 11Z took part, was the first example of such behavior in this primate. Now several years later, in a different group, we were seeing more coalitions, also in the context of competition for social status, but this time 11Z was on the receiving end. The video below shows one such event from April, the mating season, when a coalition of 5 – 6 males, ganged up on 11Z, but after a few minutes gave up.

Even though we did not witness directly the events that led to his downfall in July, I suspect, on the basis of interactions observed before and after, that some sort of joint action by the other males in Group S played a part. And I think this type of behavior is also the key to understanding the succession-based system on Cayo Santiago. The benefits of the alpha rank are low but still worth fighting for. What dissuades most immigrant males from challenging for the alpha position are not the low benefits but the potential of experiencing high costs, as a result of coalitions of males acting together to keep the new males at the bottom of the hierarchy. The very large groups that form on Cayo Santiago, because of the provisioning, perhaps make this more common. Having more males per group than rhesus have in the wild might be producing a novel social environment and perhaps the succession-based rank-acquisition system is only the norm on this island, where monkeys are fed by people on a daily basis. Observations from Japanese macaques in groups, which are provisioned and from groups, which are not suggest that this might be true. In large, provisioned groups Japanese macaque males mostly queue for rank. All observations of direct take-overs of the alpha position have been observed in the smaller, naturally-foraging groups.

Of course, much of this is speculation. The case of 11Z is a single anecdote. To be able to evaluate some of these ideas we would need many more similar events to establish how the patterning of costs and benefits affect male strategies in groups of various sizes, and crucially also to collect detailed data on smaller, naturally-foraging groups of rhesus in Asia.

The months spent tracking 11Z and watching him succeed and lose provided some of the most interesting observations of animal behavior I’ve ever had the chance to witness. As is often the case, these observations led to more new questions than answers and perhaps that is the beauty of field work: it keeps you wanting to come back for more.

Read our paper describing these events in more detail (and with references to much of the background literature alluded to above) in the journal Behaviour.

New results from our rhesus study will also be presented at the IPS/ASP meeting in Chicago in August 2016. Find out which talks and posters will feature data on 11Z and the other males in Group S here.