A Data ID to a Chimpanzee

Kaitlin Wellens
By Kaitlin Wellens
October 16, 2013

If a stranger walked in and out of my office without ever speaking to me, they would most likely know one very crucial fact—I really, really like chimpanzees. My fellow graduate student, Jordan Miller, and I did not hesitate to decorate our office space with photos to remind us of our amazing summer fieldwork. Not only are the photos examples of how adorable young chimpanzees are and how beautiful our study site, Gombe, is, but they are constant reminders of our academic goals and why we love our work.

The researchers at Gombe are lucky enough to work with the largest dataset for a wild ape in the world. Before adventuring into the forests of Tanzania where the data is collected, the impressive nature of the dataset was hard to grasp. I knew it was an amazing part of history, but it was hard to see each chimpanzee ID as more than just that—a group of letters with behavioral codes associated with it. Once in the field, however, these IDs transformed into complex and amazing individuals that I spent 12 hours a day with. They had intricate social networks, rich pasts and unwritten futures. When you spend this amount of time, quietly watching the chimpanzees, you reach an understanding of them that is impossible to do with the dataset alone. Furthermore, each hour you spend with a chimp, the more you realize you may never fully understand them. The challenge of this, along with the actual physical difficulties of traveling through the forest is what makes fieldwork so addicting.

Sometimes while following a chimp, I would try and take mental pictures of what I was experiencing scientifically and personally. I was honestly scared that when I got back home to stare at a computer screen all day, I would lose touch with what I had learned here in the field–with the sights, the smells, the images that had defined my days in the field. Once I arrived home, however, I realized that this was incredibly silly. Of course some of the physical features fade, but the dataset has been transformed permanently in my mind from numbers and letters into lively, unique individuals. I actually spent a day playing around with the biography dataset, exploring some of the data for the individuals I had followed this summer. I originally went to check on the age of one individual, but an hour later found myself still in the same excel sheet. Now seeing their ID’s and their data help me quantify the story I saw in the forest this summer. Of course the days spent in the field this summer spoke for themselves in the importance of fieldwork, but this hour in the dataset really struck me. Seeing the chimpanzees this summer not only increased my knowledge of their behavior, but it fueled my passion for understanding why these behaviors and relationships develop and allowed me to look at the dataset with a new perspective. Whether I am reaching for my fanny pack or my metro card in the morning, my experience this summer has greatly shaped the way I approach my work as a developing primatologist.