By investigating the reclusive savanna chimpanzee, Alex Piel ’01 hopes to unlock secrets of our own evolution
By Michael Blanding
Chimpanzees are one of humans' closest living relatives and our link to our primate ancestors who emerged from the forest 13 million years ago to walk to the arid plains of Africa. Even though scientists have been studying chimpanzees for almost 100 years, however, "most of the time we study them in tropical forests," says Alex Piel '01. "But we know that humans evolved on these dry, open landscapes. So the question is, what does it mean to come out of the forest?"
Piel has been asking that question for the last six years through the Ugalla Primate Project, a research station in the Issa Valley of Tanzania, and one of the few places in the world where one can study the savanna chimpanzee — a cousin to the more common forest-dwelling apes that may hold clues to how humans evolved. There is a good reason this species has been studied so little: The apes live across vast swaths of hilly, wooded territory, with ranges 20 times that of forest chimps, and habituating them to human contact can take a decade. "It's a challenge as a researcher just to find and stay with them," Piel says.
Along with his wife, Fiona Stewart, Piel has been arduously pursing the primates across the savanna, making new discoveries about how they communicate and survive. "If there is a way to sum up my academic life, it is 'high risk, high reward,' " he says. Recently, he's had help meeting the challenges from students in Bucknell's Animal Behavior Program, where Piel got his own start — exposing a new generation to the rigors and pleasures of fieldwork in Africa.
Created in the 1960s, Bucknell's program is unique among universities for its size — it houses four species of primates: baboons, squirrel monkeys, capuchins and macaques, in large indoor/outdoor enclosures — and for offering unlimited access for research by undergraduates. Piel came to Bucknell to work in animal behavior, intending to become a veterinarian. Once he met the monkeys in a first-year seminar class, however, he was hooked. "It's hard to stare into the eyes of another primate and not see your own evolution and start asking bigger questions about what we have in common," Piel says.
By Piel's third year, his adviser and now psychology professor emeritus Doug Candland told him it was time to get some experience in the field — arranging for a post to study lemurs in Madagascar. The experience was life-changing for Piel, exposing him to sensory extremes and intense solitude of the back country. "You either love fieldwork or you hate it," Piel says. "I just thrived and wanted more and more of it."
He returned to Bucknell to complete a thesis on the University's baboons, then upon graduation returned to the field to study blue monkeys in western Kenya. As a master's student at Iowa State he journeyed to Senegal, West Africa, where he was exposed to savanna chimps for the first time. There, he met his future wife, Fiona, who was also studying the species. When he began a doctoral program at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Piel coordinated his research with hers to study the chimpanzees in Tanzania, an opportunity to build and develop a new research project.
Because it's difficult to get close to naive chimpanzees, Piel and Stewart at first just examined the signs they leave behind — feces, nests in the trees and vocalizations in the air. Stewart learned tree-climbing in Oregon to examine nest architecture and function. Piel, meanwhile, worked with marine biologists studying whale sounds to develop a remote sensing system to track the calls of chimpanzees across the savanna.
He realized they weren't hollering randomly but calling and responding to one another, exchanging information over miles of rough territory. "Even though they can't see one another, it seems clear that they know 'he's there,' and 'she's there,' and here's what tomorrow is going to look like," he says. Piel hypothesized that the chimpanzees use the calls to help one another find scarce sources of food and avoid predators such as wild dogs. "Those adaptations can't be that different from what early humans had to face," Piel says.
Stewart, meanwhile, sometimes slept in chimpanzee nests, demonstrating how they help the apes avoid predators and keep warm during cold nights. She surmises humans, too, must have lived in nests for protection until they could defend themselves with tools like fire. After completing their doctoral research, Piel and Stewart decided to stay on and, with colleagues and support from UCSD, establish the Issa station in 2012, building their own nests of canvas tents on bamboo structures, and beginning the long process of habituating the chimpanzees to tolerate close observation.
They discovered the difficulty of tracking the animals across the landscape, but also the challenge to secure funding. Gone is the heyday of primate research during the time of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. "Things come in and out of fashion, and foundations have turned their attention elsewhere," says Candland. While a researcher working on genetics might easily score seven figures, primate researchers struggle to come up with five.
To support their camp while waiting for the chimpanzees to habituate, Piel and Stewart began working on new investigations — examining genetic information in feces, which revealed that some in the population were infected with the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), the precursor to human HIV and a primate version of AIDS, and extending their studies to other species including red-tailed monkeys and yellow baboons. To help defray costs, they also began welcoming volunteers — including several from Bucknell. After Piel and Stewart made a donation to Bucknell's Animal Behavior Program in 2012, Alexander Vining '14 wrote to thank him. Piel invited him to come work in the field that summer, reciprocating the opportunity Candland once gave him. "My whole career started at Bucknell with the risk he took in sending me to Madagascar," says Piel. "Here it is 20 years later, and that is still so much a part of who I am."
Vining spent the summer following red-tailed monkeys, often walking 13 hours a day with just a Tanzanian field assistant through the dense landscape to collect data on their activities. He felt as inspired as Piel had been. "It helped that the field site was gorgeous," Vining says. One day when he and Piel hiked out into the field, they sat by a beautiful waterfall observing the monkeys, and Vining eagerly described what he'd learned. After that experience, Vining decided that he too would devote his life to animal research. "A day like that is worth years of hard work," he says. Since then, he's spent two years at Duke studying lemurs and is now at the University of California, Davis, where he is investigating how primates move through the landscape.
The following year, Piel and Stewart again donated to Bucknell's program and received another letter of appreciation, this time from Eden Wondra '15. They invited her to Tanzania, where she helped with the chimpanzee habituation work, taking pictures to build a visual library of the animals. She observed some chimpanzees using sticks and tree bark to fish for ants in a fig tree, a rare activity, and wrote up her observations as first author on a paper, published in September 2016 in the journal African Primates. Wondra now is pursuing a master's in education at the University at Buffalo and working with children at the Buffalo Zoo. "Being in the field gives me stories to tell the children about what is really happening out there and hopefully inspires them to do this type of research."
Piel has recently reached out to faculty members in the Animal Behavior Program, hoping to connect more closely with Bucknell and bring more students to work in the field and interpret the data being collected by Tanzanian field assistants. Professor Peter Judge, psychology, who directs the program, is excited about the opportunity and is seeking funding. He sees it as a complement to students' lab work and a way to inject a little reality into their fantasies about fieldwork. "I call it the Jane Goodall effect," Judge says. "They all want to go out and study chimpanzees in the wild, but it helps for students to learn what it is really like," far more challenging than National Geographic and Goodall typically depict it.
For his part, Piel is already living out the fantasy he set out for himself long ago, patiently awaiting the day when the savanna chimpanzees of western Tanzania are habituated enough to allow him to approach close enough for detailed observations. Even now, he is beginning to catch glimpses of what that future might hold. "Sometimes you can spend eight or nine hours with the chimpanzees from just 20 meters away, and I can't even begin to describe what that feels like," he says. "I am not a religious person, but it's the closest I can imagine to a divine experience
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