June 5, 2015
Wooden giants tower overhead like ancient pillars exploded from the earth. Their outstretched arms fill up the sky and catch the sun, engulfing life below in a shadowy veil that drapes across the forest floor. Three men could not reach around the swollen buttresses of these mossy leviathans, an enormity that pales in comparison to the unseen network of roots that curls into fists in the soil underfoot, anchoring heavy emerald tops in place for centuries. Looking up, bundles of green hang in the air like clouds, smooth and indefinite in their borders. Light dances atop their rolling peaks, hidden from eyes below, save for single sparks that flash through fissures in the canopy and set fire to twisted angles of crisscrossed leaves until they glow with jade and neon.
Gazing at the trees can be a blissful way to pass the time in a national park. Their branches teem with life, and in the wetter months of April and May, the views above are filled with scenes of a lush oasis accompanied by the pleasant chatter of birds, reptiles and small mammals as they flit and scamper about the foliage. Gazing at the trees can also be the only way to pass the time in a national park, that is, when your study subjects are nowhere to be found. And thus begins the internal battle of the field scientist, wherein researchers must fight to balance their appreciation of nature and its cycles with a growing urge to throw tree-kicking temper tantrums.
Chimpanzee grouping patterns are highly variable; within a larger community range, individuals form temporary subgroups that change in size and composition throughout the day. As flexible omnivores, chimpanzees alter their diets from season to season when different fruits become ripe . At any point in time, a tree in mast can feed more than ten individuals, and we researchers crane our necks to find branches overflowing with hairy black spots who groom, play, hoot and display. On days of lesser fortune, the trees overhead remain empty and the paths silent, and hiking across valleys over the course of hours yields nothing but empty water bottles and sore calves. When resources become scarce or are no longer available in clumps, chimpanzees forage alone or in smaller parties in order to minimize feeding competition. Without nutritional opportunities, and for males, reproductive ones, there is little incentive to hang around. NO food, NO girls, NO party… like Animal House, but without the togas.
Should a male be located against what seems like all odds, he is likely to spend the day foraging and traveling, making pit stops to self-groom or rest. As large animals with correspondingly large dietary requirements, males can move from one end of their range to the other in a single day just to find food. They can also drain the minutes of a forlorn researcher’s fleeting youth with hours upon hours of napping, since this type of male chimpanzee “me time” isn’t exactly ideal for a dissertation that is keen to examine social behavior. And so, against my better judgment, it is in these moments that I catch myself falling into the mental trap of internal monologues. My delirious forest psyche begins to generate unhelpful thoughts that range from the likes of “poor me” and “what is my purpose?” to “want steak” and “hey, what’s with thumbs?” But before reaching depths too profound and accidentally unlocking the secrets of the universe, I try to remind myself of a few things:
1) “Poor me” is quite lucky to have eight months dedicated solely to the pursuit of research. I am unencumbered by classes, lab work, meetings, as well as the struggle to maintain a style of dress that communicates young professionalism (yes, those sweatpants were covered in chocolate, and no, I was never actually just at the gym). I am free to write, read, observe and come up with new questions– a grad student’s dream come true.
2) My purpose, in a practical sense, is to collect enough behavioral and physiological data on wild chimpanzees to support a doctoral dissertation. Hundreds of data points are not amassed over the course of a few hours, and so the momentary panic felt on a day without samples must be taken in stride. Not unlike a group of chimpanzees, field research can fluctuate between lonely tedium and exciting commotion. All days, despite their events, are informative and necessary, so simply resolving to remain calm and trudge onward can mean one step closer the completion of a research goal. My true purpose, in the larger scheme of things, is to make the effortless transition from behavioral ecologist to pit master, landing a TLC sponsored reality show that highlights all the heartfelt, behind-the-scenes struggles of producing locally-sourced meats, maintaining a chummy yet appropriate relationship with staff, and disputing with Young Earth creationists who picket the shop’s logo, which features an early Homo erectus at the helm of a premium charcoal smoker.
Along those lines,
3) steak will always be wanted. I am still dealing with this reality.
4) “hey, what’s with thumbs?” is a timeless, inevitable question posed by children, stoners, and anyone who has ever stared at their own hands for over four hours while alone in a forest.
 Goodall, J. (1986). The chimpanzees of Gombe. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.