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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

More on the Fongoli chimps and Dr. Jill Preutz

Telling the chimps' stories
From the Des Moines Register

Jill Pruetz often sleeps in the field, waking to African savanna noises and the sight of chimpanzees she has studied for nine years. When Pruetz returns to Ames, she leaves her soft bed to sleep on a cot on the porch. "I can't sleep but I'm exhausted," she says, drumming her fingers on the arm of her office chair at Iowa State University. "I'm antsy." One of those fingers on her left hand - an empty ring finger - is half missing, bitten off by a captive chimp years ago.

The research takes great personal sacrifice. Pruetz often loses 30 to 40 pounds in the savanna, walking great distances and observing up to 16 hours each day. She has had malaria nine times, once so severe she could only crawl. She rarely sees her boyfriend, Thomas LaDuke, a herpetologist from Pennsylvania. "My work defines my life to a great extent. For better or worse, it takes up almost all of my time and much of my energy," Pruetz says.

Pruetz is an anthropology professor at ISU but her heart is with the chimps, a species much more closely tied to humans than any other. The highlight of her life was saving an infant chimp last year. The highlight of her professional life was the first observation of chimps using tools to hunt, a finding that circled the globe two years ago. She is the "most widely talked about" chimp researcher since Jane Goodall, wrote National Geographic Magazine two years ago. In April, Pruetz was featured in a National Geographic Channel documentary which will air again later in the year. "Anyone that is mentioned in the same breath as Jane Goodall will acknowledge there can never be another Jane Goodall," Pruetz says, calling Goodall's 1986 book on chimpanzee behavior the best. "I find it incredibly flattering."

When Pruetz is back in Iowa, she thinks about the chimps. Flanking her computer is a large cutout of a chimp she named Frito, one of the group of 30 she studies in Fongoli, Senegal. A cartoon bubble juts from his mouth with the words "Thinking of you." She fears he may be dead. The word has come from research assistants in Senegal. "Having a chimp die that I really care about is depressing and makes me want to distance myself from my chimp subjects," she says. "But I eventually move on."

The National Geographic Society has awarded her five grants for the study primarily because of her skills as a scientist, said John Francis, its vice president of research. "But if you can tell a good story about it afterwards," he adds, "that is icing on the cake." And Pruetz has some stories.

The night before she returned to Iowa this spring, she slept in the field and dreamed of a dog biting her leg. She awoke fearing it was hyenas. The work has numerous potential dangers. Chimps are five times as strong as humans and if they knew it, she would be in trouble. Pruetz observes from just 30 feet away, close enough to be near the group but far enough to not intervene. Recently, a new alpha male in the group was in the midst of a display to show his dominance. A display involves loud calls and frightening faces, dragging around branches and generally scaring the others. He turned to Pruetz. She thought, it couldn't be that bad. "But when he displayed at me, holy wow, that was scary," she said. "I felt like I should act frightened just because he deserved it. You can't do that, so I just stayed silent."

Yet she is fiercely protective of the chimps, declining in numbers like other great apes worldwide. "It is her life," said her mother, Dorothy Pruetz, from Yoakum, Texas. "The chimps have become her family." Pruetz grew up in Texas, was reading by age 3 and became the first in her family to graduate from college. She also ran track at Texas State. "You never told Jill Pruetz what to do. She would tell you what she was going to do, and you better watch out," her mother said.

The sinewy professor looks younger than her years and talks like an excited undergrad about the first time she saw a great ape after studying the blank stares of monkeys. It looked at her with a kind of understanding in its eyes. She was hooked. Pruetz was awarded grants to study a group of savanna chimps in Senegal in 2001, three months before she joined the ISU staff. The chimps live mostly on the ground, unlike chimps elsewhere, and are hard to study, ranging in a wide area. She would catch a glimpse and not see them for 10 days. Pruetz figured it would take 10 years just to "habituate," or get the chimps used to her presence without scurrying. It took only four years. "I wore them down," she said. "I knew I could because I never give up." The male-dominated culture in Senegal, where men and women eat separately and afternoon teas last three hours, was at first difficult. Pruetz prefers the field in constant 100-degree temperatures to the mud hut home and drop toilet shared with other villagers. The amazing things happening in the field, especially one day in 2006, explain why.

A female chimp named Tumbo sharpened a branch and wielded it like a spear. "What is going on?" Pruetz thought then. "What is she going to do with it?" Tumbo used it to stab a bush baby, a small, tree-dwelling primate. She was hunting. Over 17 days, Pruetz saw them hunt bush babies 13 times, followed by more occurrences in 2007. She recorded it in dozens of waterproof journals that line her office. This link to human behavior fascinated lay people and earned immediate reaction in the science community. Critics surfaced who didn't think the sample was large enough. Others thought chimps couldn't do such a thing. Since then, she has documented 90 uses of hunting tools among the chimps. Pruetz shrugged it off as the nature of science. The disagreements also made a good story for the media. Her name was suddenly everywhere. But the more she watched the chimps, the more her interest changed to their social behavior. And that is her best story.

While back at Iowa State in January 2009, she got a call from a research assistant in Africa. A hunter had gathered one of the baby chimps she had named Aimee and was trying to sell it. Pruetz used money from teaching an online course, bought a $1,400 plane ticket and flew to Africa. They convinced the hunter to give Aimee back, tended to the wounded chimp and gently placed her out in the field. Pruetz was scared of aggression by males or that the mother had been killed, as typically happens when a baby is taken. Then they saw an orphan adolescent male named Mike approach. He paced around Aimee and sniffed. Then he scooped her up and took her back to Aimee's pant-grunt greetings to the others. The mother had been injured so Mike carried Aimee around for two days before she came to her baby. Aimee would live. And Pruetz had recorded another rarity, altruistic behavior from an unrelated adolescent male. "Seeing that infant reunited with her mother was more fulfilling than anything I have done before," Pruetz said. "I can't imagine anything being more fulfilling than that moment." She knew questions would arise from researchers about intervening with subjects and from students about the dangers of anthropomorphizing. In the interview on National Geographic Television, she had to pause to cry when talking of Aimee. "We all struggle with it. But what I tell students is, try to be objective but acknowledge that we all have our favorites," she said. When she speaks of Aimee or Frito, there is a catch in her voice.

So conservation has become a more important subject to Pruetz. She says these chimps may not be around in 20 years. Iron and gold miners are moving in. She is also working on a paper on altruism among the chimps as her interest grows in the emotional similarities to humans, raising questions on how we define and separate ourselves from animals. Pruetz says she will likely do this work forever, despite creaking knees from years of running and the long separations from family and friends. "It's so amazingly peaceful," she says. "I'm glad to come home, but I can't wait to go back."

Related link: Must See! - Dr. Preutz reintroduces captured chimp back into Fongoli research group

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