Gombe Today: Understanding Our Closest Living Relatives

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Research activities, like other aspects of life, were not spared by the Covid-19 pandemic. In March 2020, Gombe Stream Research Center had to limit research in order to ensure the safety of staff and wildlife alike. Unfortunately, as the Gombe team was also dealing with a separate respiratory disease outbreak from earlier in 2020, some staff remained under strict protocol to monitor their recovery. In April, JGI conducted a series of meetings with park management and JGI Tanzania, continuously updating our Covid-19 guidelines. It was decided that long-term data collection protocols such as B-record follows would resume, but only with essential staff to continue prioritizing the health of all. In November, we were able to restore research activities by implementing strict testing and safety protocols to ensure the prevention of Covid-19 spread.  

Research Highlights 

Despite Covid-19 delays, nonetheless, there were 30 contributions to scientific publications in 2020 sharing Gombe insights, along with dozens of observations covering several ongoing studies in the park. Gombe has three communities: Mitumba, Kasekela, and Kalande. For the last 60 years, JGI has been doing daily target follows of various chimpanzees on alternating days in the forest (known as the B-record).  

The B-record has continued unbroken since Dr. Goodall first began her research, which is now the longest continuous chimpanzee study in the world. In addition, Gombe Stream Research Center (GSRC) researchers and our academic partners are conducting studies on the settlement patterns of young chimpanzee females and chimpanzee vocalization in both central communities. Additionally, studies on Mothers and Infants provide a greater sense of how this important bond shapes successful adults. Like the B-record, it was started by Dr. Goodall herself, and the subsequent longitudinal data is an unparalleled resource for scientists the world over. This research has contributed to tremendous insights, particularly the unique behaviors of Gombe female chimpanzees. Female chimpanzees normally leave their mother’s community when they reach reproductive age at around 12 years old. However, Gombe is unusual in that only 50% of the females leave. One publication out of Duke University in early 2020 concluded that, “Female Chimpanzees with Powerful Moms are Less Likely to Leave Home. Research on this behavior is ongoing and could have great implications for our understanding of the different factors that influence female immigration patterns. 

30 published pieces by researchers in 2020 

300+ science publications from Gombe since 1960 

828 focal follows of individual chimpanzees in 2020 

1 Baboon Twin Birth in 2020. Of 1,200 baboon births documented, there was only one other pair of twins in 1980 

Insights on Chimpanzee Populations 

As ongoing studies help expand our understanding of chimpanzee behavior, GSRC (in collaboration with JGI USA science team) also led a massive three-month chimpanzee survey on the Gombe-Masito-Ugalla (GMU) ecosystem, a vast area south of the Malagarasi river (30,000 km2), which holds the majority of Tanzania’s chimpanzees. Surveys were run at 25 different sites, and data points were logged using Esri’s Survey 123 mobile app on smartphones. This was uploaded into JGI’s ArcGIS Online account for analysis, collaboration, and sharing with decision-makers.  

Using distance survey methods and observations like chimpanzee nests, the population size was estimated to be over 700 individuals. According to a 2018 survey, this reflects a stable chimpanzee population, which is wonderful news for Tanzania’s chimpanzees and our efforts in the region. 

About Author

Ashley Sullivan is the Communications & Policy Officer at the Jane Goodall Institute, where she works to connect individuals with Dr. Goodall's vision, and the JGI mission. Ashley graduated Stony Brook University with a B.A. in Anthropology and a minor in Biology, and is currently pursuing a MS in Environmental Science & Policy at Johns Hopkins University. She has a varied background including conservation, art, communications, digital media, design, photography, and documentary filmmaking. Ashley believes in sharing information to empower and in the magic of storytelling to change hearts and minds. Through growing understanding, empathy, and justice, she believes it is possible to ignite positive change, every day.