Campus & Community

Gilby blogs from Ugandan forest

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Biological anthropologist gives inside view of chimp research

Ian Gilby was following a chimpanzee through Uganda’s Kibale Forest, observing behavior and testing revised data collection methods. Gilby had done his doctoral dissertation on chimpanzees in Tanzania and was studying long-term data about male chimp interactions.

But on this late January morning, it was the elephant that got his attention.

“[The chimpanzee] seemed very cautious, and sat quietly for several minutes, staring into the undergrowth. Suddenly, we heard a crash of vegetation, and a low rumble, and realized that an elephant was standing not more than 15 meters away,” Gilby recounted later. “It raised its head and started to slowly sway back and forth. … In a minute or two, it started moving toward us, and we moved away quickly at a 90-degree angle. … We soon found a trail and stopped to listen. It was hard to hear over our panting and nervous laughter, but all seemed quiet.”

Gilby’s account of the elephant encounter is contained in a Web log, or blog, of his trip to the Kibale Forest in January. The blog, on the Anthropology Department Web site, provides an unusual glimpse into the daily life of a field scientist.

The blog was the brainchild of Alex Georgiev, a graduate student in anthropology who was working with Gilby last fall to update the Kibale Chimpanzee Project’s Web site. Georgiev argued that the Web site ought to have changing features that bring people back again. The blog was one way to do that, Gilby said. Web site statistics through March 9 show that the site has been viewed some 2,800 times.

In addition to drawing people to the Web site, however, Gilby said the blog is a new way for scientists to communicate to the public. Details of the life of a field scientist are typically missing from the scientific papers summarizing research findings. An account of what chimpanzees are like when you’re sitting next to them may give readers an entirely different feeling about the animals than they would get from reading about the latest discovery of chimp behavior or anatomy.

“It’s important for chimpanzee conservation, even though that’s not the primary goal of our research,” Gilby said. “If a reader suddenly feels like they made a connection, maybe that’s one more reason for them to give money to an organization that protects chimpanzees.”