20.02.2017 - 11:48
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Department of Primatology

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6
04103 Leipzig

phone: +49 (341) 3550 - 200
fax: +49 (341) 3550 - 299


Using data from our closest living relatives, the great apes, the Department of Primatology contributes to the general question "What makes us humans?" Our conviction is that a detailed and complete understanding of the great apes will lead to a better understanding of the similarities and differences with humans. We have concentrated on natural populations of African great apes, and use them as models to increase our understanding of the evolutionary processes leading to the social, genetic, ecological, cultural and cognitive complexity specific to each of them.

Linking Environment, Physiology and Behavior across Species

We use multidisciplinary approaches incorporating ecological, physiological and behavioral data and emphasize integration of comparisons among field sites, populations, or species when appropriate. Three research projects exemplify this broad-scale comparative approach:

  • Ecology of culture and cognition in chimpanzees: Using a continent-wide multi-site and multidisciplinary approach, we want to determine how ecological factors influence the evolution of tool use, meat eating, social structure and culture. This project will also integrate the use of stable isotope analysis (in collaboration with the department of Human Evolution).
  • Evolution of spatial knowledge in chimpanzees and humans: A long-term collaboration with two research teams studying human hunter-gatherers (including the Hadza from Tanzania and the Aka Pygmies from CAR) compares spatial knowledge in humans, and chimpanzees using similar GIS methodology.
  • Energetic of foraging in African great apes and humans: Using a multi-site approach and new technology to measure nutritional status of wild animals and nutritional content of their foods (in collaboration with the IZW in Berlin and Prof. Kauf in Leipzig), we want to understand how animals compensate for variation in food availability and how physiological adaptation helps them to balance their diet.

Core research areas

At present, the department includes several core research groups focusing on wild great ape populations, the chimpanzee group working in Taï National Park in the Côte d'Ivoire, and in Loango National Park, in southern Gabon, as well as collaborating with the Ngogo and Budongo chimpanzee projects, in Uganda. The bonobo group works in the Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The gorilla group concentrates its fieldwork on the mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, with new collaborative projects on western gorilla populations in Central African Republic, Republic of Congo and Nigeria.

Our three core research laboratories use genetic, hormonal and stable isotopes analyses, respectively, in collaborative projects with these field groups as well as others. Similarly, the GIS laboratory and the long-term collaboration with the Robert Koch Institute allow us a complete consideration of ecological factors, including pathogens, affecting great apes.

Conservation Biology

The survival of all great apes is badly threatened because their habitat is being destroyed, human pressure on their habitat is increasing, they fall victim to the soaring bushmeat trade and diseases are killing them. This has forced many of us to become active in different conservation activities.

One important scientific contribution to conservation is in the domain of biomonitoring and we are presently working in collaboration with different conservation organizations to develop a reliable survey method for both chimpanzees and gorillas. Another important aspect is that the department has developed and is hosting the IUCN/A.P.E.S. Database (http://apesportal.eva.mpg.de/) which collates all survey data available on all great apes, and, therefore allows assessment of the success of conservation projects and projections about future development of ape populations.

In addition, the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation (www.wildchimps.org) and the student-led Conservation Group have been working to develop in situ conservation projects to contribute to improve the prospect of survival for the African Apes.