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Social bonds among female chimpanzees

In most primate groups, strong and enduring social bonds form preferentially among members of the philopatric sex, particularly kin, who benefit from cooperation through direct and indirect fitness gains. But what happens when such kin bonds are not available? Do unrelated individuals form social bonds and friendships? If so, on what basis and to what benefits? As a Senior Research Scientist in the lab of Anne Pusey at Duke University, I have had the unique opportunity to explore these and other questions with an unprecedented long-term data set (>50 years of data) on wild chimpanzee behavior from Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Chimpanzees differ from most mammals by showing consistent female-biased dispersal and strict male philopatry, which means that adult females have to maneuver their adult social lives with few or no relatives available for support. In a series of projects described below, my work is providing new insights into female chimpanzee’s social preferences, the ecological constraints on female social behavior, and the relationship between sociality and health.
  • Eastern chimpanzee feeding on vines in Gombe National Park, Tanzania

Habitat quality and its influence on chimpanzee behavior

To better understand the adaptive value of female chimpanzee behavior, I am currently investigating the relative influences of ecological versus social drivers on female ranging patterns. As small-scale measures of habitat quality are difficult to obtain using standard vegetation survey data, I have developed a new technique for estimating spatial variation in feeding habitat quality that makes use of advances in species distribution modeling to predict the distribution of important plant food species, combined with behavioral data on diet selection.
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Social bonding and health in chacma baboons

Strong, enduring social bonds are one of the most defining aspects of primate sociality. Variation in the strength of these bonds has now been related to measurable fitness outcomes in some populations of nonhuman primates, providing evidence for their adaptive significance. However, we still know little about the proximate mechanisms that make individuals with close social ties more successful than others, nor do we understand the ecological contexts in which close social bonds became particularly advantageous during primate evolution. To better understand the proximate pathways linking social experiences to fitness in a natural context, I am currently completing a three-year research project that followed a unique combination of two approaches: 1) detailed field observations of behavior with assessments of hormonal variation and energy balances, and 2) minimally invasive field experiments that establish the relationship between stress hormone variation and susceptibility to pathogens. I conducted this research in collaboration with an international team of scientists from the US, Kenya, and South Africa on chacma baboons in the Tokai Forest, Cape Town, South Africa.