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Ape Women: 10 Dedicated Primate Researchers

Women are doing amazing work in primatology, the study of monkeys, apes, prosimians, and even humans. Although many are working on furthering our understanding of our closest relatives, we will take a look at just a few of them.

1. Vanessa Woods

Vanessa Woods is a native of Australia, a research scientist at Duke University, a writer for The Discovery Channel, and an advocate for bonobos, apes that closely resemble chimpanzees. Read about Woods research in the Congo at Bonobo Handshake and follow her blog at Psychology Today.

2. Francine Patterson

Francine "Penny" Patterson began an experiment as a graduate student in 1972. Almost 40 years later, the experiment is still going! Patterson received permission from the San Francisco Zoo to work with a one-year-old gorilla on language acquisition. So Patterson began training little Koko to use American Sign Language. The gorilla began using words within a couple of weeks, and now has a vocabulary of over a thousands words in "Gorilla Sign Language", a slightly modified form of American Sign Language. Work with Koko led Patterson to found The Gorilla Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the lowland gorilla.

3. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh spent 30 years as a language researcher at the University of Georgia, during which time she taught a bonobo named Kanzi to communicate through the use of pictograms. Savage-Rumbaugh is now doing language research at The Great Ape Trust, a research center in Des Moines, Iowa. The trust is home to six bonobos and six orangutans.

4. Claudine Andre

Claudine Andre is a Belgian researcher who grew up in the Congo. She volunteered at the Kinshasa Zoo and became enamored with bonobos. In 1994 she founded Lola Ya Bonobo, a sanctuary for orphaned bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 60 bonobos sheltered there were mostly confiscated from poachers. Andre also founded Friends of Bonobos to support the sanctuary and is trying to find ways to return orphaned apes to the wild.

5. Sarah Hrdy

Sarah B. Hrdy is an anthropologist with the University of California at Davis. Her research into human evolution led her to study primates, starting with the behavior of Hamuman Langurs in India. Since then, Hrdy uses other primates as well to develop theories that contribute to the investigation of human sociobiology and evolution. Despite a shortage of vowels, she has written a half-dozen books on the subject of motherhood in human and other primates.

6. Sally Boysen

Sally Boysen is a psychology professor at Ohio State University. She studies cognitive development in great apes, particularly the mathematical abilities of chimpanzees. She began teaching chimpanzees to count in 1984. She later worked on teach several chimps to read, including one named Sheeba, who lived with Boysen for almost all her life.

7. Mireya Mayor

Mireya Mayor is an anthropologist who studies primates and other wildlife in Africa. In 2000, she discovered a mouse lemur that is the world's smallest primate, a find that led to the establishment of a national park in Madagascar to conserve the tiny animal. A former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, Mayor received her PhD from Stony Brook University in 2008. She is a host at Nat Geo Wild where her show Mystery Gorillas is now running. Mayor's new series Wild Nights will premiere in August. Her adventures will be chronicled in a forthcoming book.

8. Birute Galdikas

Birute Galdikas has dedicated her life to orangutans; their study, protection, and conservation. She was born in Germany to Lithuanian parents and grew up in Toronto. Galdikas received her PhD in anthropology at UCLA. She launched her dream of studying orangs in Borneo with the help of renowned anthropologist Louis Leakey in 1971, and became one of "Leakey's Angels". Since then, Galdikas has been based in Asia. She founded The Orangutan Foundation International in 1986 to fund orangutan research. Galdikas isn't a hero to everyone in Indonesia, where she fights for acreage to be set aside for the apes, and fights against those who wish to use the land for more profitable endeavors. She is now a citizen of Indonesia, but spends a few months every year teaching at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. She is also a full professor at Universitas Nasional in Jakarta.

9. Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey was another of Leakey's Angels. Fossey lived in Rwanda for 18 years studying the mountain gorilla in its natural habitat. She approached and befriended a colony of gorillas, gaining their trust over time, and was even accepted as a member of their group. Over the years, Fossey wrote about her relationship with the gorillas, which led to the supporting of her work through the Digit Fund (named after her favorite juvenile gorilla), which later grew into the organization The Gorilla Fund. Fossey's conservation efforts were not welcomed by Rwandan poachers, whom she fought tooth and nail. She was found murdered in her cabin in 1985. The crime was never solved. Fossey had already written the book Gorillas in the Mist, which became a major motion picture in 1988.

10. Jane Goodall

The third member of Leakey's Angels here, Jane Goodall is currently the premier authority on chimpanzees. Goodall first traveled to Africa from her native England in 1957. There, she met and impressed Louis Leakey, who hired her to do research on chimpanzees. Goodall began her research at Gombe, Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Over the years, she documented the social structure of a chimpanzee colony and reported on it for National Geographic Magazine. Goodall founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977. The foundation works to conserve areas where chimpanzees can flourish, and funds research into our understanding of these apes who are so closely related to us. In 1994, Goodall also founded TACARE, an organization dedicated to helping the people of Tanzania. Now 76, she travels the world to educate people about apes and raise funds for chimpanzee conservation.

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AFP, Stringer, Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
The Most Complete Fossil of an Early Human Relative Goes on Display
AFP, Stringer, Getty Images
AFP, Stringer, Getty Images

Twenty years after it was discovered in an African cave, one of the most important fossils in the quest to demystify human evolution is finally on display. As Smithsonian reports, Little Foot, an Australopithecus specimen dating back more than 3 million years, was revealed to the public this month at the Hominin Vault at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Paleontologist Ron Clarke discovered the first bone fragments from the fossil in 1994. The pieces came from the remains of a young female’s feet, hence the nickname. Clarke and his team spent years excavating Little Foot bit by bit from the Sterkfontein cave system in South Africa until the bones were fully removed in 2012. The shattered remains had been embedded in a concrete-like material called breccia, making them incredibly tricky to recover. But the sum of the parts is monumental: Little Foot is the most complete Austrolopithecus fossil known to science.

The hominid genus Austrolopithecus played an essential early role in the chain of human evolution. Lucy, another famous hominid fossil, is a member of the same genus, but while Lucy is only 40 percent complete, Little Foot retains 90 percent of her skeleton, including her head. It’s also possible that Little Foot surpasses Lucy in age. Most paleontologists agree that Lucy lived about 3.2 million years ago, while one analysis places Little Foot’s age at 3.67 million years.

Austrolopithecus is believed to have spawned Homo, the genus that would eventually contain our species. The discovery of Lucy and other fossils have led scientists to designate East Africa as the cradle of human evolution, but if Little Foot is really as old as tests suggest, then South Africa may deserve a more prominent point in the timeline.

Following Little Foot’s public debut, the team that’s been studying her plans to release a number of papers exploring the many questions her discovery raises.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Mark Golitko
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6000-Year-Old Skull Might Belong to World's Oldest Tsunami Victim
Scientists speak to residents in Aitape.
Scientists speak to residents in Aitape.
Mark Golitko

Tsunamis and other natural disasters have taken a deadly toll on human populations for millennia, and now we may have the oldest example of that truth yet. An international team of anthropologists and environmental researchers recently analyzed a cracked skull that belonged to a person who likely died in a tsunami some 6000 years ago. They detail their find in a new study published in PLOS One.

The partial skull in question, known as the Aitape skull, was found in Papua New Guinea in 1929 during a geological survey by an Australian scientist named Paul Hossfield. It has since been dated to the mid-Holocene epoch, or around 6000 years ago.

For the current study, the scientists returned to the site of the 1929 discovery to sample and analyze the sediment there to find out more about what might have killed the person millennia ago. They had only Hossfield's basic field descriptions to go on, but University of Notre Dame anthropologist Mark Golitko, one of the study’s authors, says that based on those descriptions, they think they were able to sample within 100 yards or so of the skull's original location.

The top of a brown cracked skull against a pink background
Arthur Durband

Based on the grain size, chemical signature, and marine microalgae found within the sediment samples, they were able to determine that around the time that the skull was buried, the area was inundated with water, probably from a tsunami. At that time, the site, located near the present-day town of Aitape, would have been just along the shoreline. Aitape was also the site of a devastating tsunami in 1998, and the Holocene sediments resembled the ones associated with that disaster.

It's possible that the skull was buried before the tsunami hit, and the grave was ripped apart by the waters and the rest of the bones scattered. However, during the powerful 1998 tsunami that killed more than 2100 people in Papua New Guinea, bodies buried in modern cemeteries were not uprooted even as the sediment above them washed away, making it more likely that the ancient skull belonged to someone killed in the disaster.

The new analysis has "made us realize that human populations in this area have been affected by these massive inundations for thousands of years," study co-author James Goff of the University of New South Wales said in a press statement. "Given the evidence we have in hand, we are more convinced than before that this person was either violently killed by a tsunami, or had their grave ripped open by one."

Field Museum anthropologist John Terrell, another co-author of the study, said, "If we are right about how this person had died thousands of years ago, we have dramatic proof that living by the sea isn't always a life of beautiful golden sunsets and great surfing conditions."

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