Drs. Michael Haslam & Alejandra Pascual-Garrido – Oxford University, UK (2013 – 2016)

Chimpanzees in the Issa Valley have long been known to use tools, not only from observed termites and ants that we have identified in chimpanzee feces, but also from rare encounters of chimpanzees termite fishing. By joining PRIMARCH (Primate Archaeology), we will begin to systematically examine chimpanzee-exploited termite mounds, their size, distribution, and density across the study site, as well as focus on the actual tools the chimpanzees use and what material artifacts remain on the landscape once they have departed. Our collaboration with Drs. Pascual-Garrido and Haslam to address these questions is merely one of numerous sub-projects under PRIMARCH that includes two other primate species: long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis aurea) in Thailand and bearded capuchin monkeys (Cebus libidinosus) in South America, as well as comparative data from the Koobi Fora hominin locality in Kenya. Below, Dr. Pascual-Garrido demonstrates how to fish like a chimpanzee at Issa!

Read more about Primate Archaeology HERE and also from the 2009 ‘manfeisto’ in Nature.  The project closed in 2017.

Chimpanzee tools - Nov2014
Issa chimpanzee termite tools recovered in November, 2014 (credit: A. Piel)
Fiona Stewart, Bill McGrew, and Susana Carvalho inspect a termite mound at Ugalla
APG measuring mounds
Alejandra Pascual-Garrido of Oxford University measuring termite mounds and termite tool availability at Issa (February 2015 – credit: A. Pascual-Garrido)



Prof.  Serge WichLiverpool John Moores Univ.

In addition to the employment of motion triggered cameras and solar-powered acoustic recorders, the UPP collaborates with Conservation Drones to assist in better understanding the Issa chimpanzee habitat. This technology has been used to successfully demonstrate the applicability of low cost drones for research and conservation purposes across the globe  (Koh & Wich, 2012).

Alex and Fiona were trained by Koh and Wich in 2012, and in collaboration with the Jane Goodall Institute, USA demonstrated the application of drone technology to improve their survey of chimpanzee distribution and relevant threats across the GME. In June 2015, in their first visit to Issa, Wich, Jeff KerbySander van Andel, and Lilian Pintea visited Issa to assess UAV application to remotely identifying chimpanzee nests.

Results of this initial ‘pilot’ study were presented by Lilian Pintea, PhD, of the Jane Goodall Institute, USA in Washington, D.C. in April 2014 at the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group meeting: “On the Wings of Robots – the Ups and Downs of Using UAVs in Conservation” and the work continues to the present.

Read more of Koh and Wich’s work here here.

An image captured from a Conservation Drone above western Tanzania (May 2012)
Conservation Drones and the Ugalla Primate Project (June 2015)
Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 22.47.39
Serge Wich and Jeff Kerby prepare a quad-copter for deployment at Issa (June 2015)


Conservation Drones took the the skies over regions of western Tanzania once again in 2015 in collaboration with the Ugalla Primate Project,  Jane Goodall Institute Tanzania, and EnviroDrone. The Conservation Drones field team consisted of co-founder Serge Wich,  who has previously worked with drones and nest censuses in Gabon amongst other locations, technical director Jeff Kerby, and Noemie Bonnin (PhD student at LJMU). After a few dozen missions flown with quad-copters and fixed-wing mapping units, some of the the data were sent to ENVD for land-cover classification analysis. Knowing tree density and canopy structure are key elements to understanding how wild primates, and especially chimpanzees, exploit a mosaic landscape at Issa. The work by EnviroDrone to extrapolate these data from UAV imagery collected over the study area have the potential to inform the sympatric animal niche construction, and further, reveal to researchers a metric of diversity in the landscape – canopy structure – that we do not have access to from the ground. The ENVD team consisted of Founder/CEO Ryan Cant, CSA Richard Zeng, and Rebecca Shearon (University of Windsor). Below, New pilot analysis by EnviroDrone on feature extraction of Issa flyovers. See here for full document 

In 2017, Wich returned to Issa with students from LJMU’s Msc in Wildlife Conservation and UAV Technology, and conducted training sessions for both UAV staff (below) and Msc students.

Serge Wich training Mashaka on UAVs (March2017)
Serge and Godfrey flying at Issa (March2017)


Kelly van Leuuwen (Univ. of Bournemouth)

Kelly van Leeuwen, Amanda Korstjens, and Ross Hill, University of Bournemouth

With the University of Bournemouth’s LEAP project, we are investigating  how the earliest hominins used mosaic habitats for e.g. food and sleeping sites. Kelly van Leeuwen – to Issa in summer 2017 – is looking into landscape featuers such as vegetation height & density and how those predict chimpanzee travel routes and sleeping site selection . She will then develop Agent Based Models (ABM) on hominid landscape use (testing whether they follow Brownian Motion, Levy path or mental map strategies) and grouping patterns (incl. hominid-typical fission-fusion dynamics). The model will be adapted to predict how early hominins may have used the same landscape differently by adjusting travel speed and efficiency, food selection, and predator avoidance tactics to their specific body size, diet, and locomotor patterns. Please see Kelly’s blog post here on her time at Issa!

Adam van Casteren, Max Planck Weizmann Centre, Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (July – October 2015)

Physical Feeding Pressures of Chimp Diets 

Lucas Scientific FLS-1

KitambiChanges in environment may cause a shift in the physical properties consumed by chimpanzees and the composition of external pollutants that exist on them. Comparing the physical properties and external pollutants of foods between chimpanzees living in a tropical environment in Uganda and those inhabiting tougher savanna environments like Issa, may help identify the environmental drivers of dental adaptation.

Using a portable universal testing machine, designed for use in the field (Lucas Scientific FLS-1) van Casteren measures the physical properties of a range of chimpanzee foods in different biomes. The ingestive behaviours are recorded using a video camera and external dust particulates are collected by using a plastic cleaning method on the chimp foods.

This research, hopefully, will allow us to help piece together the evolutionary adaptations of our ancestor’s dental apparatus as they moved from the original great ape habitat of the tropical rain forest to a more savannah-like environment. By looking at the pressures exerted by modern habitats we can hope to build a more complete picture of the diets and environments that shaped out lineage. However, this research is not only applicable to paleo-environments; in the modern world human pressures are forcing environmental degradation and change forcing some endangered species, like chimpanzees, to inhabit environments they are not classically associated with. See more here.

Dr. Caroline Phillips, University of Witwatersrand (2012 – present); Elizabeth Fillion, Northwestern University (August 2015)

Adaptation of diet by incorporating new plant foods encountered in different environments is a key element for a species to successfully expand their home range. Chimpanzees are found across different ecosystems and have an expansive dietary repertoire across their range; therefore, they are a valid referential model to investigate dietary adaptation of a species. Phytolith and stable isotope analyses are two bioarchaeological methods used to reconstruct past environments. Findings can provide insight into plant foods that were available to species in the region.

 By creating a plant reference library from species included in the diet of Ugalla chimpanzees from phytolith and stable isotope analyses we can then assess how these methods: a) reflect diet from faecal samples analysed; and b) reflect habitat types and plant foods present within their home range from soil samples analysed.  We will obtain a valuable perspective on efficacy and limitations of these methods to reconstruct the home range of this ape and also to provide insight into plant foods available to the Ugalla chimpanzees.


Liz Fillion collects a soil sample at Issa (August 2015) (credit: L. Fillion)
LizFillion - core
A perfect soil core! (Credit: L. Fillion)

Elizabeth Fillion worked at Issa briefly in collaboration with Dr.  Phillips to study how accurately phytoliths in sediment reflect the surrounding vegetation. She takes plant and soil samples from the variety of habitats in Ugalla which will later be scrutinized under a microscope to find the tiny phytoliths. This work aims to better establish phytoliths as a method of understanding chimpanzee home ranges and creating vegetation reconstructions. 



Jeff Leach at Issa, June 2014

Interest in the Issa chimpanzee microbiome began with Jeff Leach (right, The Human Food Project) in 2014, and has expanded since. We are currently looking into multiple questions answered by the microbiome with Leach’s team, with Catie Williams at UCL, and Rob Dunn (see below) 


Fiona vacuums for arthropods at Issa (July 2015)

Rob Dunn , North Carolina State University, USA

Just as human homes harbour thousands of microscopic species, so must chimpanzee beds. To date, however, there has been minimal investigation into detail of this resolution regarding the microbiota of ape nests compared to surrounding areas. We collaborate with the Dunn lab to investigate this question in Issa chimpanzees, namely what arthropod community exists within and around sleeping sites.

Adriana Hernandez-Aguilar vacuums for arthropods in a chimpanzee nest at Issa (July 2015)


Treponema infection in Issa baboons

With Dr. Sascha Knauf, we have recently (2016) begun to investigate Treponema infection in Issa baboons. The initial goal is initially to isolate and characterize simian Treponema pallidum strains from blood and tissue samples collected from the study troop of yellow baboons, especially in the context of infections identified in other E. African baboon populations. Dr. Knauf has been investigating the disease for many years and his interests converge with our broader study of the health of Issa’s primates. Read more about their work here.




Beatrice Hahn, University of Pennsylvania, USA


A SIVcpz molecular phylogenetic tree (incl. Ugalla), from Rudicell et al. 2011

Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIVcpz) has a significant negative impact on the health, reproduction and lifespan of chimpanzees, yet the prevalence and distribution of this virus in wild-living populations is still only poorly understood. Our collaboration with Dr. Hahn has revealed an unusually high prevalence of SIVcpz in Issa chimpanzees (31%, see Rudicell et al 2011) and ongoing work aims to not only monitor the spread of the virus at Issa, but also investigate more widespread infection rates across the Greater Mahale Ecosystem.

Soon, Hahn’s lab will screen chimpanzee fecal samples collected across the GME (see below), as well as peripheral to Issa, to examine how widespread the virus is distributed in western Tanzania.


Dr. Klara Petrzelkova, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (2006 – present)

An example of Protospiriud (credit: K. Petrzelkova)

One artifact of living in a marginal habitat may be increased stress, potentially reflected in behavior (e.g. ranging) or compromised immunity. We thus have ongoing studies of the microbiota of Issa chimpanzees, not only to better understand parasite type and diversity, but also specifically entodiniomorph ciliates – microscopic protozoans (see Vallo et al. 2012; Kalousova et al. 2013).

At right, Barbora Kalousova of the Institute of Vertebrate Biology in Brno, Czech Republic, collects a redtail monkey faecal at Issa (December, 2012). More on related work here. Recently, we have reported on the presence and prevalence of malaria as well as adenoviruses at Issa.


Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (2010 – 2016)

Camera trap deployed at Issa

This collaboration was part of the PanAfrican Programme: The Cultured Chimpanzee. Part of the initiative’s aim was to collect information on ecological and social parameters of African great ape populations on large spatial scales to complement information obtained from longitudinal studies of just a few social groups.  To do so, over 20 remote cameras were deployed across the Issa study area to capture behavior otherwise not easily accessible with unhabituated apes (see Gallery or our channel on YouTube for video clips), but also to help us better understand what other animals compete with and share resources with Issa’s chimpanzees (see examples below). These data can then be compared to traditional methods to assess efficacy (see Russak et al. 2012, Russak 2014).

Additional cameras donated to UPP by The Nature Conservancy also also capturing images of illegal poachers entering the study area (see below right). These images provide us quantitative data on the extent and potentially, intensity, of illegal activity in the region.



A map of the GME, with target areas circled (credit: L. Pintea, JGI)

The Nature ConservancyFrankfurt Zoological Society, The Jane Goodall Institute (2011-present)

While extensive research and protection efforts have occurred in Gombe National Park and Mahale National Park, at least 75 percent of Tanzanian chimpanzees, of an estimated 2,500-3000 total chimpanzees live outside of these two parks, and little is known about their behaviour or ecology.  These data gaps are especially important when one considers the dramatic change in landscape, moving from lush tropical forests along the lake, to vast open woodlands that dominate most of western Tanzania.  Chimpanzee density and behaviour are thought to respond to this shift in vegetation, requiring that conservationists devise different strategies from those inside National Parks to ensure their protection in the drier miombo woodlands.   A survey was thus undertaken (Oct 2011 – Sept 2012) to expand our understanding of and prioritize these areas for conservation planners. The map here describes target areas for the survey.

In January 2014, UPP and JGI teams revisited the exact locations surveyed in 2007 to assess changes in chimpanzee densities over the six year period since then. Results were published in 2016 and can be found under “Publications.” 

In October 2014, Alex led a team back into Ntakata and Kalobwe forests to assess any changes in forest state and chimpanzee presence/abundance since the original visit in 2011. The pictures below reveal the logistical challenges to working in these remote areas, home to some of the largest chimpanzee populations outside of National Parks. We are now revisiting areas every three years to monitor changes in chimpanzees and their habitat, and with recent support from the Arcus Foundation, we will conduct the first systematic survey of the entire Mahale Mountains National Park beginning in late 2017.

Porters climbing into Ntakata, Oct2014 (credit: A. Piel)
Porters help transport supplies into Ntakata Forest for chimpanzee surveying and monitoring, October 2014 (credit: A. Piel)
Preparing supplies for Ntakata
Survey team members help prepare supplies for the trip into Ntakata forest for chimpanzee and forest monitoring, October 2014 (credit: A. Piel)




Lilian Pintea, The Jane Goodall Institute (2005 – present)

With Dr. Lilian Pintea, of JGI, USA, we are working to establish and improve existing GIS remote sensing models that predict chimpanzee presence across western Tanzania. Predictive models consider proximity to forest, steep slopes, and biomass among others, and help researchers,  conservationists, and all stakeholders better understand which areas are important for chimpanzees.  At right is an example of an early version of this model (from Moyer et al., 2006). At left, Dr. Pintea overlooking the Mfubasi River valley, just north of Issa Valley in March 2012.

Most recently (August 2013), JGI (in collaboration with Google), contributed seven Nexus tablets for UPP researchers to use at Issa. Open Data Kit (ODK) technology has revolutionised community based forest monitoring in other places, and has the potential to transform the way we manage our data at UPP, providing researchers located anywhere in the world access to data on a daily basis. September represents a pilot test of this technology at Issa.

At left, Fiona teaches UPP field assistants how to use Google/Nexus tablets for data collection; At right, Alex poses with UPP field assistants and their Google/Nexus tablets (September 2013)






Read HERE about our earlier collaboration with Seth Menser, senior horticulturist at the San Diego Zoo, specifically seeds that began their life in Tanzania with Jim Moore twenty years ago, and now contribute in BIG ways to the Zoo’s conservation outreach program.