JANE GOODALL'S WILD CHIMPANZEES
By Sharon Schmick;e
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
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,"
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
"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
"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.
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
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."