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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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“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 https://kibalechimpanzees.wordpress.com/.

 

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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