I completed my PhD on chimpanzee nest building behaviour in the Division of Biological Anthropology at the University of Cambridge in 2011. My first degree is in Zoology from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where I developed initial interests in tropical biology studying dominance interactions of wild hummingbirds in Ecuador. My M. Sci research took me to Fongoli, Senegal, where I managed the study site and conducted research into savanna chimpanzee nest-building behaviour. I then began work in Ugalla, western Tanzania, surveyed new areas and provided the nest decay rate data necessary to calculate chimpanzee density in the region.
My PhD investigated variation in, and the shelter function of chimpanzee nests across two communities of savanna chimpanzees; the Fongoli community in Senegal, and the Issa valley community in Ugalla, western Tanzania. Throughout a lifetime each great ape builds a nest, or bed, at least once a day, which is a notable investment of time and effort. I investigated how nests are made, how techniques vary across individuals and communities, and through observation and experimental tests I investigated the functions of these ubiquitous shelters.
My research interests surround the behavioural variation of chimpanzees, from nest building behaviour to social structure and the intersection of each with conservation. Specifically, I am interested in the use of genetics as a tool to understand behavioural variation. Firstly, by identifying individual nest builders through DNA fingerprinting of faeces collected beneath night nests I am studying variation in nest building across individuals, lineages, and groups. Secondly, genetics can help to identify where and with whom individuals are associating across the landscape. In dry habitats chimpanzees live at extremely low densities and are hypothesized to range across areas 4-100 times larger than forest-dwelling chimpanzees. Through genetic identification of individuals, and use of sex-specific markers of dispersals, I aim to understand how or if chimpanzees maintain typical fission-fusion,territorial defense, and male patriarchy, whilst living at such low densities.
My current research uses genetics to improve a chimpanzee survey across the Greater Mahale Ecosystem of western Tanzania. In Tanzania, 75% of chimpanzees are found outside of the protected areas. In collaboration with Alex Piel, The Nature Conservancy, Frankfurt Zoological Society, and the Jane Goodall Institute, we aim to prioritize key areas across the Greater Mahale Ecosystem for conservation through the use of technology, genetic census and investigation of gene flow. We also provide information and assistance to local and regional governments to coordinate village land use plans with conservation strategies.