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Can Zoo-Kept Gorillas Teach Us About Human Behavior?

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Rebecca Chancellor, in her role as the principal investigator
of the Gishwati Primate Research Program in Rwanda

May 28 , 2014

At the Philadelphia Zoo this spring, primatologist Rebecca Chancellor’s psychology and anthropology students observed gorilla behavior in relation to the crowds that visit their indoor enclosure. Do larger crowds seem to create more aggression in the gorillas? How does the presence of children affect their behavior? Why does one ape engage in play behavior with the crowd: Is it because of the ape’s age? sex? personality?

With only plate glass to separate them, the gorillas and zoo guests eye one another. The students watch the interactions and collect data to analyze and test hypotheses. There are many researchers studying chimpanzees, but only a few who study gorillas. The data may help the zoo manage the welfare of their great apes.

tempChancellor’s interest in collaborating with the zoo’s conservation and education office arose from her role as principal investigator of the Gishwati Primate Research Program in Rwanda, where she has studied an isolated population of chimpanzees since 2008.

She has arranged WCU’s first study trip to Rwanda this summer for anthropology, psychology and history students, in conjunction with two other WCU faculty. Six students are going this year to learn about primate behavior and communication with biological psychologist Aaron Rundus and to study history – in particular the 20th anniversary year of the country’s genocide -- with Brenda Gaydosh. Students will spend 19 days in country, observing primates’ feeding and social behavior, learning of Rwanda’s civil unrest by visiting several genocide memorials, and visiting small villages as well as Nyungwe & Volcanoes National Parks.

Chancellor will stay at West Chester this summer and continue observational studies of the Philadelphia Zoo’s gorillas. Visitor traffic there was light during the winter ­-- especially this winter.

As a primatologist Chancellor has spent much of the past few years in Africa. Her research in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda has focused on multiple primate species’ feeding, ranging and social behavior. Chancellor has also worked on understanding the genetic relatedness of the Gishwati chimpanzee population in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute, and on examining the prevalence of viruses in the population in collaboration with the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

She is currently collaborating with colleagues from Emory University to examine the prevalence of parasites within the chimpanzee population, and with the Max Planck Institute to understand chimpanzee behavior variability across their species range. In addition, she’s studying how ecology influences chimpanzees’ social behavior, for example, when their favorite food is not available, what happens to the chimpanzees’ grooming relationships.

“This research will give us insights into understanding the evolution of and making hypotheses about human behaviors,” says Chancellor.

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Rebecca Chancellor is an anthropologically trained primatologist specializing in behavioral ecology, particularly of Old World primates. She earned her Ph.D. in 2008 from the University of California, Davis. Chancellor has research experience with multiple primate species, both free-ranging and captive. She joined West Chester’s faculty in 2013.

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