Name That Primate

Primates of both the ape and human kind abound at the CHCI. While the chimpanzees remain safely in their rooms and the outdoor area, the CHCI hallways teem with staff, interns, docents, graduate students and fourteen usually disoriented apprentices. As the newbies, we apprentices must learn the names, faces and identities of all primates on the premises, a daunting task indeed with two Andreas, Andy, Anne, Anna, Audrey, Austin, a Debbie, a Debbi, Dani, Jason, Jamie, Julie, Jacqueline, Karla, Katie, Kelly, Kevin, Lani, Lindsay, Lisa, Lynn, Martha, Mary, Mary Lee, Maureen, Michael and one Rozsika to name just a few. For the life of me, I cannot tell Cristy and Kelly apart.

Not only do apprentices find acknowledging the humans difficult, identifying primates with hairy bodies is no simple undertaking either. In person, the three resident chimpanzees are easily recognizable. Unfortunately, our ID assessments, and a good bit of our data collection involves video archives of the entire chimpanzee family, including the late Washoe and Moja. Those five dark, blurry, flurrying doppelgängers seem indistinguishable to our unpracticed eyes.

Scientific research demands exactness, and apprentices must be precise in our recordings of chimpanzees and behaviors. We study hours of videos to ascertain which primate is which, what behavior is what, so we may successfully pass the dreaded “Chimp ID” and “Taxonomy” tests. A taxonomy is analogous to a dictionary of interactions and behaviors. Chimpanzee interactions are classified by their contexts (such as play, greeting, grooming or agonistic) and their most frequent accompanying behaviors, facial expressions, postures, arousal levels, and vocalizations. The CHCI Taxonomy lists more than 200 individual entries plus illustrations and photographs. Apprentices must know the difference between a head nod and a bob as well as the dissimilarities of hold, grasp and a cling, or whether a bite is agonistic, a grooming behavior or play game. When a chimpanzee “grins” he is not happy, but when his face is neutral, he may be relaxed or just contemplating his next move. Oh, that fist bump the Obamas did–that’s called a dab.

[Editor’s note: The grin that Audrey refers to is the “smile” we so often see from chimpanzees on television, in the movies, and on birthday cards–this is a fear grimace and an expression of fear and stress.]

While I aced my taxonomy test, I, mortified, failed at chimp identification. Austin, an undergraduate student who also once struggled with a chimpanzee identity crisis, offered some pointers to those of us shamefully less astute. Thanks to him we all passed the second round of chimp id exams.

Here are some quick tips to help you “name that primate” at CHCI:

First, it’s helpful to tell the males from the females, so check out backsides. Females have pronounced genital swellings.

Washoe not only was the matriarch of the CHCI clan, she definitely was the “Big Mama” of the family. With a huge female swelling and a well-defined middle-aged female “pear” shape, she was easy to spot.

Moja always loved to wear clothes, especially in her favorite shades of red or pink. However, those wily CHCI staffers never include video clips with those haute couture giveaways in the assessments. So, apprentices looked for her very straight limbs during quadrupedal movement and a big balding patch on the back of her head.

Tatu, a petite lady, sports a full white beard, arched posture and bent hands of an oldster but is agile and calculating. She enjoys tricking apprentices on the berm by sneaking out of sight while we file out our field logs. She frequently signs CHEESE/, a favorite treat along with just about anything else made from milk.

Dar, known as the gentle giant, is the largest of the group. His gray back, floppy ears and freckled Jimmy Durante face usually makes him fairly easy to recognize. He enjoys reading books and magazines about mechanical things. He tends to be laid back, or shy, will display to visitors initially, then go back up to meditate on a terrace or hammock.

Loulis, Washoe’s pampered son, plays his princely role well. He’s much smaller than Dar, and the ridges on his forehead are one of his most observable features. He’s the most gregarious of the chimpanzees, quick to engage in anything social with chimpanzees or humans–friends or strangers. He is also the most likely to display and threaten–again with friends or strangers–though sometimes it appears that he’s doing so for the sheer enjoyment of it. While his mother Washoe loved shoes as much as any Sex in the City gal, Loulis seems to enjoy feet without shoes, and signs HURRY/ for us to bare our tootsies.

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One Response to Name That Primate

  1. andrea.smejkalova says:

    Another nice article, Audrey!!! Come find me, I’ll tell you how to recognize Cristy and Kelly 🙂 !

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