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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 in chimpanzee across their natural distribution in Africa (we will include over 35 different chimpanzee populations). This project will also integrate the latest developments in technologies to understand population history, local adaptations and responses to environmental stress.
  • Evolution of technological and spatial knowledge in chimpanzees and humans: Based on natural observations in their natural environment, we are developing an in-depth comparison of the strategies used by the Taï chimpanzees and some human forest hunter-gatherers (including the Aka from Central African Republic and Mbendjele from the Republic of Congo) when cracking nuts in the forest with tools and when searching for food. This study is planned so that the methods used by both species will be as similar and comparable as possible, thereby removing the confounds of arbitrariness and artificiality too often found in cross-species comparisons.
  • Sociality and adaptation in closely related ape species: Using our long-term data on wild bonobos and chimpanzees from the forests of LuiKotal and Taï National Park, we intensified our comparison of the social grouping patterns and cognition of two species. To complement the behavioral data, we will also conduct experiments using the same stimuli in their natural environment.

Core research areas

Since its creation the department has concentrated on long-term field projects encompassing all of the African Great Apes. We have maintained field research stations in Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and the DRC or collaborated with existing projects such as Kokolopori in the DRC and in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. The long-term approach is the only one that allows investigation of essential evolutionary questions pertaining to demography, population structures, life-history responses, food and climatic annual variations, physiological responses and life-time reproductive success.

At present, the department includes several core research groups focusing on wild great ape populations, such as the chimpanzee group working in Taï National Park in the Côte d'Ivoire, as well as in Loango National Park, in southern Gabon, and also collaborating with the Ngogo and Budongo chimpanzee projects, in Uganda. Thebonobo group works now in Kokolopori in the Democratic Republic of Congo but we continue to collaborate with the Lui Kotal project in the Salonga National Park. The gorilla group concentrates its fieldwork on the mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, as well as western gorillas in Loango and in addition conducts 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 isotope 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.