Chimpanzees in Context: Behavior, Cognition, and Welfare

Using knowledge of chimpanzees to enhance their care and conservation.

Posted Jan 20, 2021

Vera Kratochvil, Public Domain
Source: Vera Kratochvil, Public Domain

Chimpanzees are one of our closest relatives and their lives are in peril because of human intrusions into their homes and lives. A new book edited by chimpanzee experts Drs. Lydia Hopper, Assistant Director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, and Stephen Ross, Director of the Center, called Chimpanzees in Context: A Comparative Perspective on Chimpanzee Behavior, Cognition, Conservation, and Welfare is a comprehensive summary of what we know about these remarkable animals and provides information that is essential in developing conservation protocols. It's my pleasure to offer an interview with the editors of this forward-looking collection of essays by people who know the subject well.1,2,3

Why did you compile the essays for Chimpanzees in Context?

Chimpanzees in Context is actually the latest in a series that has resulted from a set of conferences held in Chicago. In 1986, Jane Goodall, with her colleague Paul Heltne, organized a meeting to coincide with the publication of her influential book The Chimpanzees of Gombe. Their idea was to bring together scientists from all the different long-term chimpanzee field sites to share what they've learned. Jane describes the meeting as a “game changer” for her: It was the catalyst for her activism work, which she has done so admirably for decades now. These meetings have been held roughly every 10 years and represent an ongoing opportunity to refresh our commitment to understanding chimpanzees and to finding ways to conserve and care for them. Moreover, each of the three previous meetings resulted in the publication of edited volumes, sharing the work from the meetings: Understanding ChimpanzeesChimpanzee Cultures, and The Mind of the Chimpanzee. The third meeting was hosted by Lincoln Park Zoo and so it was our honor to again host the fourth meeting in the series in 2016. In doing so, it was inevitable that we would also publish an edited volume. Chimpanzees in Context is that book. 

How did you select the contributors?

As for the previous three books, many of the contributing authors were speakers at the 2016 meeting, although we invited additional contributors to offer a comprehensive perspective and to ensure that we gave voice to the next generation of scientists, to get a first-hand view of what is happening “on the ground,” so to speak. The majority of authors are chimpanzee experts and whose work represents a range of disciplines. Importantly, the aim of our book is to understand chimpanzees “in context”–as part of, and in relation to, the rest of the natural world. Therefore, we have included several authors who study other species, and whose research specialties in dolphins, birds, or bonobos, for instance, provides a critical point of comparison to best understand chimpanzees.

How does your book relate to your backgrounds and general areas of interest?

One of the really nice things about this book is that it so elegantly fits with the ethos of our research center at Lincoln Park Zoo: the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes. Since 2004, the Fisher Center has sought to conduct meaningful, multidisciplinary research on behavior, cognition, conservation, and welfare. We focus on using high-quality science to better our understanding of primates and to leverage that science to affect change for these species. Our extensive collaboration with Chimp Haven, the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in the world, represents the first such zoo-sanctuary collaboration. And, for over a decade, we have partnered with the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project that conducts critical conservation science work in the Republic of Congo. This demonstrates the breadth of efforts that are being conducted on behalf of chimpanzees by scientists everywhere, including those at Lincoln Park Zoo.

The other key component of the book that reflects our work is the comparative perspective it brings. Jane Goodall was very adamant that the focus of the first meeting, held in 1986, be on chimpanzees. And this continued with the next two meetings. But with the fourth meeting, we felt it was important to pull the lens back a bit. As scientists, we value this comparative perspective and virtually every project we conduct at the Fisher Center is done with a multi-species approach where we work on studies of chimpanzees, but also with gorillas and Japanese macaques. Additionally, our field site in Congo is characterized as one of the rare places on the globe where there are sympatric populations of gorillas and chimpanzees seen interacting with each other.

Who is your intended audience?

Chimpanzees in Context is definitely aimed toward a specialized audience–those who are interested in chimpanzees. Our primary audience is scholars and professionals studying and working with chimpanzees, but we also hope it will be of interest to those who, more generally, thrive on learning about science, ecology, and cognition and how this information can be applied to the care for and conservation chimpanzees. 

What are some of the topics that are woven into your book and what are some of the major messages from you and your contributors?

The book offers a broad and comprehensive view of our current understanding of chimpanzees and opens with a foreword by Jane Goodall. In the first few chapters, the contributing authors share fundamental research on chimpanzee development, aging, sociality, and behavior, all presented in comparison to what we know for other species, such as bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, and even dolphins. In subsequent chapters the authors explore how we study chimpanzee behavior and cognition. These lead up to chapters that focus on some of the richest aspects of chimpanzee cognition: communication, cooperation, and tool-use. These are all “hot topics” in the current study of chimpanzees and so these chapters offer a great opportunity to hear about what the latest findings are, how those ideas have been synthesized, and where we think such research is headed in the future.

The book ends with a very deliberate shift to applied research. There are four chapters focused on aspects of caring for chimpanzees in captive settings and leveraging science to promote wellbeing, while the final three chapters present the threats facing wild populations of chimpanzees in Africa and efforts to conserve them. It was important to us to wrap up the book in a way that helps guide our future practices in primatology, conservation, and care.

How does your book differ from others concerned with some of the same general topics? 

There are few species in the world that are studied as much as chimpanzees. As a result, there is a fantastic amount written about them from all sorts of different perspectives, but most books focus either solely on chimpanzees, or on a single topic. Chimpanzees in Context is unique in its breadth, and also in the compilation of both basic and applied perspectives. Furthermore, as this book is one in a series, one of the great opportunities with this book is that we’re given an opportunity to continue a legacy, while also updating our understanding and helping to ensure this species is around for a long time.   

University of Chicago Press, with permission.
Source: University of Chicago Press, with permission.

What are some of your current projects?  

The release of Chimpanzees in Context allows us to focus on our next book, which, although also centered on chimpanzees, will be quite different. It will be a collection of introspective essays from those who have dedicated their lives to studying chimpanzees. This includes well-known primatologists, like Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal, but also other individuals who, despite not being so well known, are equally dedicated to chimpanzees, such as Raven Jackson-Jewett, the attending veterinarian at Chimp Haven, David Koni, a Congolese research assistant studying chimpanzees in the Republic of Congo, and Lilly Ajarova, formerly the executive director of Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. So many people are interested in studying, caring for, or conserving chimpanzees and we wanted to share the origin stories from those who have lived that dream. Chimpanzee Memoirs should be out next year from Columbia University Press.



1) For more information about Lydia Hopper click here and for details about Stephen Ross click here

2) The book's description reads: The study of the chimpanzee, one of the human species’ closest relatives, has led scientists to exciting discoveries about evolution, behavior, and cognition over the past half century. In this book, rising and veteran scholars take a fascinating comparative approach to the culture, behavior, and cognition of both wild and captive chimpanzees. By seeking new perspectives in how the chimpanzee compares to other species, the scientists featured offer a richer understanding of the ways in which chimpanzees’ unique experiences shape their behavior. They also demonstrate how different methodologies provide different insights, how various cultural experiences influence our perspectives of chimpanzees, and how different ecologies in which chimpanzees live affect how they express themselves. After a foreword by Jane Goodall, the book features sections that examine chimpanzee life histories and developmental milestones, behavior, methods of study, animal communication, cooperation, communication, and tool use. The book ends with chapters that consider how we can apply contemporary knowledge of chimpanzees to enhance their care and conservation. Collectively, these chapters remind us of the importance of considering the social, ecological, and cognitive context of chimpanzee behavior, and how these contexts shape our comprehension of chimpanzees. Only by leveraging these powerful perspectives do we stand a chance at improving how we understand, care for, and protect this species.

3) More essays and references on the cognitive and emotional lives of chimpanzees and chimpanzee cultures and conservation can be found here