My overarching research interest is the evolution of sociality. For over 25 years, my research has focused on the causes and consequences of sociality in one of our closest relatives, the gorilla. There are two species of gorillas and four subspecies. Gorillas are a particularly interesting species because they occupy a wide range of habitats across Africa and exhibit variation in their social structure, feeding ecology, and life history patterns. I am examining topics related to gorillas’ ecology, social behavior, reproductive strategies, population dynamics, endocrinology, and genetics.
I started my research career in the early 1990’s at the Karisoke Research Center, Rwanda, where I conducted my PhD research on the mountain gorillas initially habituated by Dian Fossey in the late 1960’s. In 1998, I began my ongoing long-term research project in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, where I am studying the other population of mountain gorillas. This is the second longest running research project on habituated gorillas in Africa. In 2005, I began a long-term project of western gorillas in Loango National Park, Gabon, where we are studying one group of habituated western gorillas. It has been a wonderful experience to observe habituated gorillas over such a long time period and in so many different forests inhabited by gorillas. It is also important to conduct research that can contribute to conservation efforts to protect these critically endangered great apes.
Specific topics include:
Feeding Ecology: How does the diet of gorillas vary according to food availability? How does food availability influence ranging patterns and habitat utilization?
Reproductive Strategies and Social Behavior: What strategies are used by males and females to maximize their reproductive success? How do dispersal patterns influence social behavior and group dynamics? How do ecological conditions influence social relationships? How do social relationships vary among males and females?
Population Dynamics: How do populations change in size and structure over time? How do particular factors influence the changes in a population, in particular, the ecological conditions, levels of human disturbance, as well as intrinsic factors? How do life history variables differ among individuals and what impact does this have on reproductive success?
Genetics: In collaboration with the genetics lab of our department, we are able to address questions concerning paternity, relatedness, as well as group size and structure.
Conservation: While science alone will not lead to protection of endangered gorillas, research should be an integrated part of any conservation strategy. Any research on endangered species should involve a conservation component. Therefore, I have collaborated with conservation groups working in the Virunga Volcanoes and Bwindi to carry out censuses of the gorillas so we can effectively monitor changes in their population size and the impacts of conservation strategies. Additionally, we conduct projects concerning their demography and patterns of habitat utilization, which provide useful information to assist with park management practices. I also run a collaborative conservation education program (the Bwindi Ape Conservation Education Partnership, with the North Carolina Zoo and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo) in which we work with four primary schools bordering Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.