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

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS - Dr Cat Hobaiter is a pri­ma­tol­o­gist at St An­drews Univer­sity.

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!



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