Category Archives: Rwanda 2012

the psychology of primate play

Last week I had to change my topic for a semester-long research project in my experimental psychology class. There are two weeks left in the semester. Awesome. (That’s a sarcastic “awesome,” by the way.)

The new topic is how play behaviors contribute to the lifespan development of primates, physically and socially. I’m lucky that I have data gathered from my trip to Rwanda last summer. Still, I’m a bit stressed right now. And I cannot wait until this semester is over.


Anyway, this is a cool topic. I’m pretty much in love with it. What is the purpose of play? Why do we do it? For fun! But why is it fun? Why does it have such universal appeal, and why do children play the same ways all over the world? We’re learning that play actually does serve a developmental and evolutionary purpose. It isn’t just fun. And that is really interesting.

Let’s talk cognitive ecology. That’s the study of how a species’ cognitive patterns are shaped by the specific problems presented by its habitat. We must try to understand the problems presented in the species’ habitat – what predators they have to evade, what dietary needs they have to meet, how their locomotion is determined by their physical environment  – and we must try to understand the solutions possible and the solutions utilized by the species. These points of study (which are only some examples of ecological problems faced by any given species) give us windows into the cognitive patterns of that species. If we can figure out why a species utilizes one solution over another for a specific problem, we begin to understand the cognitive patterns and priorities of that species.

So why study play? Play is a window to cognition, too. Studying cognition is never a direct process, even with human subjects. With non-human primates, or any animal, it’s even more problematic. In a sense, we are reduced to using Skinner’s Behavioralism in order to study the cognition of non-human primates. We can only observe behavior, we cannot ask them what they’re thinking (generally speaking; Koko the gorilla doesn’t count, in this case). Play is important for this, because – hypothetically – it patterns adult behavior and prepares immature animals to meet the challenges they will face as adults of their species. Now, if that hypothesis were accurate, then we could expect to see evidence of that.

…more to follow.

in Rwanda: 29 July 2012, Bones sees bones

Journal 29 July 2012

Today was a whole lot of awesome, followed by a whole lot of work.

This morning we got to see the gorilla skeleton project in action. Shannon McFarland, a primary researcher on that project, gave us a presentation on what and how they’re doing, then we got to see the lab and the bones, and meet some of the other researchers. Pictures were taken. It was awesome. Then Chelsea and I (and the other teams) spent the rest of the day trying to perfect our own presentations. In fact, this journal is going to be quite short, because Chelsea and I still have presentation work to do. Tomorrow is the big day!

Shannon McFarland, showing us an unusually shaped gorilla skull:

Puck, may she rest in peace:

In Rwanda: 24 July 2012, the gorilla slap

Journal 24 July 2012

Early mornings and fast hikes are worth it, when you’re rewarded with a two-hour gorilla play session on the side of an inactive volcano. That pretty much sums up my day yesterday.


What, you mean there’s more to this journal?

Ok, so here’s the details:

Chelsea, Amanda, Aya, and I were ready to go by 0600 this morning. Chelsea and I lucked out (in my opinion) and got picked to go to Titus’ group. Pretty exciting – even though Titus has passed on, he was something of a hero of mine, and getting to observe the group that is still named for him was pretty awesome. Theodette, one of the Karisoke research assistants, took us and Prof Dieter up to Titus’ group. It was a pretty fast hike up to the buffalo wall, which wore both Chelsea and I out, but seeing the gorillas breathed the life back into us. Theodette had to concentrate on doing her observations, but another tracker (whose name I can’t even begin to spell, unfortunately) spent the time with us and helped us to identify individuals. Most notably, we were able to watch two juveniles, named Fat (8 year old female) and Segasera (6 year old male; not sure I spelled that right, and he was called “Seg” for short). They spent around two hours playing, with a brief – maybe 20 minute – nap in the middle.

Their play vocalizations were practically constant. In other species, Chelsea and I have been noting vocalizations during play, and we really haven’t heard a whole lot. For gorillas, we had to scrap trying to count vocalizations because it never actually stopped. We would have had to count the entire session as one long vocalization, which doesn’t make sense. So instead, we noted the vocalizations as constant, and counted chest beats – another communicative noise – instead. And actually, “chest beats” is something of a misnomer because when it’s a play invitation, they beat the tops of their bellies, not their chests. We noticed Fat doing that, and asked the tracker if she did it that way because she was female (remembering that only males have the anatomy to really make that chest beat ‘pop’ sound). He said they all did it that way when it was a play chest beat. Sure enough, we later noticed Seg doing that, too. Thinking about how much they vocalize, and why that’s not the case with other species, went hand-in-hand with the realization that their play is almost entirely focused on social dominance. Along those two lines, I wondered if they were able to focus on their social relationships because they didn’t have to worry about learning to fight or evade predators; and if their prominent noise-making was also due to a lack of predators. Hmm.

Oh, and I got slapped by a gorilla. Seg. So did Chelsea. He was testing to see if we would play, too, I think.

Best Day Ever. (Yet.)