By Sharon Schmick;e
Star Tribune
October 10, 2002

Fifi gazes calmly from the screen, serene in her role as the matriarch of the chimpanzees that wildlife biologist Jane Goodall introduced to the world. In sharp contrast, Fifi's son, Frodo, bares his teeth as a chilling reminder that the alpha male can be a menace to chimps and humans alike.
The famous Goodall chimps are making a new nationwide debut this month, orchestrated by the Science Museum of Minnesota and University of Minnesota scientists who follow in Goodall's footsteps.

Through a Web site, wide-screen film and classroom materials, biology students and chimp fans can meet the animals and track research that today makes use of such high-tech tools as DNA analysis, satellites and global positioning devices.

The overall effect, Goodall said last week, is to open the research to a new generation.

"For children, this provides a whole new dimension," she said. "These educational materials are starting a fresh wave of interest."
The National Science Foundation helped fund the project.

Fifi, Frodo and 13 other Goodall chimps are the stars of the Web site, which takes viewers to Tanzania's Gombe National Park, where Goodall launched the research in 1960.

The site also introduces a new crop of chimp scholars who use the university as a research base because it houses 320,000 pages of records that have been restored and cataloged at the Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies on the St. Paul campus.

Goodall said the power of the new research begins with the depth of the information in the old records. The files were deteriorating in musty trunks at her house in Africa before Prof. Anne Pusey and colleagues brought them to Minnesota in the early 1990s. Pusey, who was Goodall's research assistant in Gombe during the 1970s, directs the university center.

The new tools answer questions that were raised by the early research, Goodall said. It had been easy, for example, to identify Fifi's offspring because observers have watched her since 1960 and seen her care for them. But who were the fathers? DNA analysis is providing the answer, and one feature of the Web site is chimpanzee family trees that couldn't have been constructed a few years ago.

"This puts a new complexion on the information that we had been able to gather," Goodall said.

In stark contrast with today's research tools, Goodall initially carried a simple note pad and binoculars into the forest. She used her first research grant to buy a telescope. She wrote the earliest files by hand because she had no typewriter.

What hasn't changed over the years is the tough work of observing the chimps on the ground, something the Minnesota scientists do for several months each year. To get DNA, for example, they watch for an animal to defecate and pick up the fresh droppings. It isn't unusual to have a bag holding the payload burst in a pocket while the researcher crawls through Gombe's thickets.

The Web site and film, like the historic record, make it clear that chimpanzees are wild predators, not merely the clever and comical critters that often have been depicted. Frodo's paper trail, for example, reveals early warnings of the sometimes violent beast he is today. It also shows the wealth of detail that is available in the full span of the records.

Birth of a bully
Frodo's record began on June 30, 1976, when observers heard sounds of an infant coming from a nest where Fifi had spent the night. The next day, she appeared at a clearing cradling a newborn. She looked nervous, the observer noted.

Initially, Frodo was absorbed with typical toddler activities: play-fighting with his older brother, nursing, tickling and napping. Before long, though, he was pulling hair and biting. At age 5 he hurled rocks at other chimps. On Nov. 24, 1981, Goodall described him grabbing saplings and jerking them back and forth in an aggressive rage.

"Jane always said that Frodo was a bully early on," said Pusey as she gingerly combed through the yellowed and tattered field papers.
Goodall was on the mark. In 1997, Frodo seized the alpha-male role by whomping his older brother, Freud, who had been weakened by mange.
Elizabeth Vinson Lonsdorf carries a scar below her right knee as proof that Frodo's top-chimp status didn't curb his aggression. Lonsdorf is the university's Ph.D. student who appears in the giant-screen film that the Science Museum premiered this week in North Carolina. It will open Oct. 17 in St. Paul.

In 1998, Lonsdorf and other researchers had followed a group of chimps up a grassy ridge where the animals congregated around a fruit tree. Frodo set into a typical fit -- rearing up, yelling and bashing trees. Suddenly he tore downhill toward the scientists.

"It was like a locomotive coming at you," Lonsdorf said. "He pummeled me, knocked me over and kicked at me until I rolled down the hill."
In 1999, Ian Gilbert, another graduate student at the university, noted: "Frodo performed a series of extremely impressive charging displays during which he attacked several other chimps and sent them all screaming to the tops of trees. When he was finished, he immediately sat down and demanded to be groomed. Several chimps begrudgingly groomed him for a few minutes, and he refused to return the favor."

Frodo, Gilbert said, is a fierce hunter: "He deflects the defensive efforts of the male colobus monkeys, punching them or flinging them to the ground as he chases the mothers and juveniles. If he is unsuccessful during a hunt, he often steals a carcass from a successful hunter."

But the half-dozen young scientists who work under Pusey defend his behavior as normal for a chimp of Frodo's standing.

That scientific acceptance of animals the way they are in the wild was sharply tested in May when Frodo snatched and killed a human baby who had been carried into the forest in violation of Gombe park regulations. The incident occurred after the museum's film was made, but filmgoers who see other examples of Frodo's thuggery will understand that he truly is dangerous.

Violence of the wild
Goodall has acknowledged over the years that chimps are as capable of violence as their human cousins, waging war on each other and eating other primates. "Anyone in the presence of wild animals incurs a certain risk, which in this case, unfortunately, proved fatal," she said in a statement that expressed sadness over the incident.

Goodall has balanced the picture by stressing that chimps also are intelligent and show remarkable responsibility in organizing their communities and caring for their young. Over the years, her team gave the animals pet names, something other scientists saw as a shocking lack of scientific detachment.

A focus for the research today is a sharp loss of chimpanzees in the wild. During the 20th century, the number in Africa plummeted from 2 million to 150,000. Humans caused much of the drop as they cleared forests, spread diseases and poached chimps for food. Goodall has spent most of the past two decades traveling around the world to warn audiences about threats to chimpanzees and other environmental problems.

Michael Wilson, another university scientist, outlined one stark example of the problem on a computer screen in his St. Paul office. At first glance it seems to be good news. Frodo and his community are thriving in Gombe's central Kasakela region. But a rival community just to their north, in the Mitumba region, is in deep trouble. A respiratory disease killed eight Mitumba males in 1996.

Since then Frodo and other Kasakela males have pushed ever deeper into Mitumba territory. A century ago, the beleaguered Mitumbas might have retreated and regrouped. But they have nowhere to go, because forests outside Gombe's northern boundaries are gone.

"They are up against a wall," Wilson said.

From Frodo's perspective, this spells impending victory. But biologists worry that if Frodo and his Kasakela gang wipe out the Mitumba males, genetic diversity will suffer. If that happened, chimps of the future would be weaker.

High-tech trackers
Wilson carries a global positioning device in the field. He also uses a microphone to record hoots and other sounds that chimps make to one another. Back in Minnesota, the data can be analyzed with computer power that the original Goodall researchers couldn't have imagined.

Wilson collaborates with Lilian Pintea, who uses remote-sensing technology to analyze conservation needs. With information gathered via satellite and other modern means, Pintea can track changes in vegetation, weather and related chimp behavior.

Instead of tracing Frodo's movements on flat maps, Pintea can add layers of topography and other details. On Dec. 2, 1999, for example, Frodo started walking in a lowland, climbed a steep slope, skirted a human trail and then walked a high ridge.

"With satellite images we can see every tree," Pintea said. "It's a totally different way of looking at the situation."

source: www.startribune.com


Return to Reviews