Jane Goodall’s contributions in studying primate behaviour

Jane Goodall is an English primatologist, ethologist and conservationist, best-known for conducting her long-term study (forty-five year) study of chimpanzee social and family life in Tanzania. She has done her Ph.D. in ethology from Cambridge University Presently, she works as director of the Jane Goodall Institute in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

Louis Leakey, British palaeoanthropologist and archaeologist known for his excavations in Olduvai Gorge, believed that studying other primates anatomy and behavior would help scientists to understand early hominid societies. Under him, Jane Goodall started the Gombe chimp observation in 1960. It is the world’s longest running continuous wildlife research project as she was completely accepted by the chimpanzee group she set out to study in almost two years. Her works on it include- “In the Shadow of Man (1971)” and “The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (1986)”.

Method of her Study

Jane used the simple method of observation of chimpanzee groups and imitated the animals, writing down copious notes in a field journal. She named each animal she studied, instead of assigning each a number.

Important contributions of Jane Goodall on Primates behaviour:

1. Eating Habits: The first main contribution from her was on eating habits when she discovered that chimpanzees are omnivorous, not vegetarian as had been supposed. On several occasions, she observed the chimps hunting and eating small mammals.

2. Tool Making: The second and most important observation from her in the field of primatology was the discovery of tool making in chimpanzees.

She discovered that some chimps employed modified twigs or grass to “fish” for termites from termite mounds. The termites would grab onto the blade of grass or twig with their mandibles and the chimpanzees would then just pull the grass out and eat the termites. At that time only humans were thought to use tools, and tool-making was considered the defining difference between humans and other animals. This discovery convinced several scientists to reconsider their definition of being human, as Leaky said on her discovery- “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man.’ Or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

3. Cooperative Hunting: Another characteristic of the chimpanzee that Jane Goodall discovered was their cooperative hunting of red colobus monkeys.

4. Complex social system: The use of tools with cooperative hunting practices lead to next discovery on the complex social system existing within the chimpanzee groups. Jane’s work has documented unique personalities displayed by each chimpanzee with a complex social system, acts of warfare between rival groups, murder, brutality, and even cannibalism in competition for food, sex, or territory, or under emotions of jealousy, fear, or revenge, their behavior proved as dark and troubling as that seen in humans. At the same time, they displayed ritualized behavior of mutual sharing including use of the social embrace to comfort an animal in mourning. They display altruism by the adoption of orphaned chimps by others in the band.

5. Primitive Language: Another main argument made by her through the study is that the chimpanzees show the beginnings of a primitive language system that includes more than 120 sounds with specific meanings.

Criticism of her work:

  • Some scientists have criticized the book for Jane’s habit of naming the animals she observed.
  • Some other primatologists have criticized Goodall’s methods, especially her use of bananas in feeding stations to attract chimps. They claim that the food causes higher levels of aggression and conflict, distorting normal behavior. But other research has shown similar levels of conflict without feeding stations.

Also, some other primatologists consider it as a successful balance between scientific documentation and exciting story telling. It introduced the public to the serious scientific work being done on primates behaviour. Since then, other researchers have observed chimpanzees using more than half a dozen tools for assorted purposes as well as other animals like birds and dolphins using the tools.

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