My research takes an inclusive approach addressing from many different points of view the biology of the chimpanzees and uses this contribution to improve our understanding of the evolution of human and its cognitive and cultural abilities. I have from the start adopted a field worker approach, whereby I go in the field and study the chimpanzees and more recently gorillas in their natural habitats to understand their flexible adaptations and then take this knowledge to address questions about “what makes us humans?”
Specifically I am currently working on the following areas:
1- Evolution of cooperation:
Chimpanzee’s territorial and hunting behaviour are demonstrably part of the most elaborate forms of cooperation seen in animal species. After having worked for years on the hunting behaviour of the Taï chimpanzees and tried to elucidate the factors explaining the important population differences observed in this behaviour, I am now turning my focus on the territorial behaviour and the complex cooperative strategies that are observed in this context. Our long-term data based on synchronous observations on 3 different communities of chimpanzees in the Taï forest will be the base of this analysis.
2- Evolution of culture and tool use:
Humans have long been proposed to be the only species having culture. However, the ever increasing data collected on wild animal population are challenging this view. Chimpanzee’s culture has been a central aspect of my research as this will allow us to gain much insight into what is special in human cultural abilities. I documented and studied the acquisition of tool use in Taï chimpanzees illustrating the important for tools in the life of this species. Recently we have expanded our field work in Central Africa to expand our knowledge on the behaviour of chimpanzees in this region that have remained surprisingly unstudied until today. This will allow us to dramatically increase our knowledge of the breadth of cultural variation existing in chimpanzees.
3- Evolution of reproductive strategies:
The development of new technologies to work non-invasively to do genetic studies with wild animals has been a important extension of our research leading to many new insights into the reproductive strategies of chimpanzees as well as a more complete understanding of some of the reasons for the existence of social dominance and the role of kinship within the social group. Despite the presence of a fission-fusion society and many adult males reproducing, paternal behaviour could be demonstrated in Taï chimpanzees.
4- Population dynamic in wild chimpanzees:
Long-term projects allow following the variations in population size and structure. We have been able to collect many data on that aspect in Taï chimpanzees and invested a lot of time in pinning down the causes of mortality in this population. This has led me to develop a large collaboration with the Robert Koch Institute trying to find the often unknown pathogens that are responsible for their death and elucidating the transmission mechanisms that lead to their contamination.
Over the 27 years of my long term field project in Taï National Park, Côte d’Ivoire, I have seen with my own eyes how the human population has increased around the park, how the forest cover has decreased and how the human pressures has increased on nature. As a depth towards the chimpanzees that have brought so much into my life and to help secure them a future, I have over the years become more and more involved in conservation projects and pushing scientist to take an active part in that domain (see the webpage of the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, http://www.wildchimps.org)