My life scientific
Chatting via Skype from a rainy Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda, Cat Hobaiter talks to Helen Pilcher about working with wild chimps
Dr Cat Hobaiter reveals what daily life is like when you’re trying to decipher the behaviour of wild chimps in Uganda.
What do you do?
I study apes in the wild. I’m interested in the gestures they make because it tells us something about how they think. I spend half my year living in the rainforest, trying to see patterns in their behaviour.
What’s a normal day like?
I set my alarm for 5am because we have to catch the chimps as they get out of bed. I always start out really grumpy, then as the Sun slowly rises the forest comes to life. The colobus monkeys make this amazing dawn chorus that ripples across the trees. It’s beautiful. Somewhere in that 20 minutes, I fall back in love with what I do again. After that, it’s all about hanging out with the chimps.
Cat’s research camp in Uganda is comfortable. They live in wooden huts with a better Skype connection than in St Andrews!
What do the chimps get up to?
Sometimes not much. They potter around and do a lot of sleeping. Sometimes it’s pure chaos. When a big fig tree comes into fruit, maybe 50 chimps will come together and all hell breaks loose. Many people are interested in the drama of their lives, like when an alpha male takes over, but I love watching the small stuff, like who sits next to who, or who’s grooming who.
Worst thing about working with chimps?
Chimps kill other chimps. It’s a normal feature of their society but you never get used to it. I once witnessed a male kill a female that I knew. They fought for hours and I just had to stand there and watch it. I remember filming it all while simultaneously balling my eyes out.
How many gestures do wild apes have?
Depending on the species, 70 to 80. It’s a whole system of signals used to express meanings and desires. Everything from the big stuff, like who’s going to get the girl, to the little stuff, like ‘give me that food’.
Can you ‘speak’ chimp?
Sort of. One thing that struck me after spending so much time observing wild chimps is that I sometimes know what’s about to happen before it happens. It’s a really good feeling. I guess that means I can ‘speak’ a little chimp.
Do you try to communicate with them?
Never. I have a rough idea of what they mean but would never imitate them. I don’t want them interacting with me, and I might not get it right. You don’t want to say the wrong thing to a wild chimp!
Do chimps have regional accents?
That’s the million dollar question. West African chimps have a couple of gestures we don’t see in East Africa. We’re working on this now.
What keeps you awake at night?
The tree hyraxes. They’re like fat guinea pigs and they make a sound like someone being murdered. My nemesis is a hammerhead bat who lives in the mango tree outside my room. He makes an annoying ‘pinging’ noise and will only shut up if I shine my torch at him!
“CHIMPS KILL OTHER CHIMPS. IT’S A NORMAL FEATURE OF THEIR SOCIETY BUT YOU NEVER GET USED TO IT”
MY LIFE SCIENTIFIC