How Gombe research data is informing scientific breakthroughs today

How Gombe research data is informing scientific breakthroughs today
05/05/2018 Webmaster

We share 98.6% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and our behaviors are more than a little alike as well. Our relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom was redefined by a revolutionary woman of science, and for nearly 60 years, Dr. Goodall’s research at Gombe National Park has evolved and continued. Insights from Gombe help us better understand ourselves, help us better conserve chimpanzees, and reveal our similarities to the rest of animalkind.

The following studies highlight extraordinary chimpanzee research still being done today. There’s plenty to discover – are you curious?


Humans aren’t the only primate known to form cliques. In fact, we can learn a lot about our own social dynamics by studying our closest living relatives: the chimpanzees!

During the early 1970s, chimpanzees in the Kasekela community of Gombe National Park broke out into a civil war, observed by Dr. Jane Goodall and her students. A previously unified group divided into two rival subgroups, and male chimpanzees from the southern faction raided and attacked those in the north, killing at least six individuals for an unknown reason. Researchers from Duke University, which holds the archive of Dr. Goodall’s original Gombe studies, are determined to find out why.

Using Jane Goodall’s newly digitized field notes from the 1970s, these scientists hypothesize that this violent episode was triggered by competition between three high-ranking males. The availability of reproductive females was unusually low at this time, intensifying their struggle for dominance.

What Dr. Jane Goodall calls the “Four-Year War” at Gombe is the only recorded instance of a civil war among chimpanzees, so it is difficult to pinpoint one definitive explanation. However, these findings reveal another similarity between humans and chimps: the tendency to let the desire for power or access to mates get in the way of our relationships. Research such as this helps us understand what binds groups together, what tears them apart, and how our own social dynamics are embedded in the primate evolutionary tree.

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Engaging in play is something that is seen in many animal species, and there have been quite a number of theories developed in an attempt to explain why. One such theory suggests that play helps young animals develop their motor skills and strengthen social bonds with their playmates. But how do we know that’s correct? Science!

After examining 33 years of chimpanzee behavioral data from Gombe National Park, researchers were able to make some stunning correlations which help confirm that very theory. They found that chimps who spent more time playing as infants were quicker to reach a variety of developmental milestones, such as traveling independent of their mothers, grooming other individuals, and making attempts at mating. This was the first study of its kind done with great apes and adds a great deal of credibility to the hypothesis that play aids in the development of social and motor skills in young animals.

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Dr. Jane Goodall was the first person to observe and share the notion that chimpanzees have distinctive personalities and emotions. So have you ever wondered what the chimpanzees she studied were like?

Dr. Goodall and her graduate students first conducted personality surveys on 24 chimpanzees in 1973, and the research picked back up again in 2010, conducted by Tanzanian field assistants and led by Dr. Alexander Weiss of the University of Edinburgh. The final data set consisted of personality ratings for a total of 128 chimpanzees in Gombe National Park on traits such as agreeableness, depression, and extraversion.

The results of this longitudinal study show that personality traits found in wild chimpanzees are stable over time and are consistent with personality studies conducted in zoo settings. This means that Dr. Goodall and other researchers who have followed in her footsteps were correct in their evaluation of chimps having unique personalities which, rather than being responses to specific triggers or situations, are a part of their individual identities. This also underscores just how similar we are to our nonhuman primate cousins and gives further urgency in our work to protect them.

These exciting discoveries pave the way for future studies on the evolution of our own personality traits, as well as the potential to do similar work with other species. In fact, this Gombe data is publicly available so that other scientists can continue to study the personalities of wild chimpanzees and grow the legacy of Dr. Goodall’s revolutionary discoveries.

Read more here.