Science Speakeasy: Fake or Fact?

The Leakey Foundation is teaming up with the Bay Area Science Festival to explore how to separate what’s fake and what’s fact when it comes to science. 

Join New York University biological anthropologist Dr. Todd Disotell and Science Friday’s Undiscovered podcast co-host and producer Elah Federon on November 1st at Science Speakeasy: Fake or Fact?,

Dr. Todd Disotell

Dr. Todd Disotell will discuss how he uses DNA evidence to test hypotheses on everything from the intricacies of our evolution to the existence of “Bigfoot.” His research at New York University’s Molecular Anthropology Lab is at the cutting edge of identifying new species of primates and clarifying our evolutionary tree. Disotell’s current work focuses on primate genomics, human population history, and the molecular evolution of diseases, but as a side project he helps people with cryptozoological investigations.

Elah Feder

Elah Feder will share a story about a science headline gone awry and her quest to find the truth. Feder co-hosted and produced the podcast  I Like You, produced segments for CBC Radio shows like Spark, The Current, and The Sunday Edition, and contributed to publications like The Guardian, The LA Times, and Xtra, Canada’s LGBT newspaper. Now as part of Science Friday’s Undiscovered podcast team she investigates the stories behind scientific discoveries, from harebrained ideas to lucky breaks.

Join The Leakey Foundation and the Bay Area Science Festival for an evening separating the fantastical from the factual at Science Speakeasy: Fake or Fact? at Public Works in San Francisco. Enjoy drinks, food, and conversation starting at 6 pm. The talks start at 7 pm. Get your tickets now!


Ages 21+, ID required for entry.

This event is presented by The Leakey Foundation and the Bay Area Science Festival with generous support from Ann and Gordon Getty and Camilla and George Smith.

To learn more about Dr. Todd Disotell’s research check out these resources: 

In a Tooth, DNA From Some Very Old Cousins, the Denisovans” by Carl Zimmer for The New York Times

‘Bigfoot’ samples analyzed in lab” by Sarah C. P. Williams for Science

To listen to Elah Feder on Science Friday’s Undiscovered podcast click the player below: 

Click here for more episodes of Undiscovered.

Video: Isaiah Nengo

On October 12, 2017, The Leakey Foundation in partnership with the Chicago Council of Science and Technology (C2ST) presented “Alesi: The Life, Death, and Discovery of an Ancestor” with speaker Isaiah Nengo.

The recent discovery of a 13 million-year-old fossil infant ape skull has offered a rare glimpse of what the common ancestor of all living apes and humans may have looked like. The fossil, nicknamed “Alesi,” belongs to a newly named species called Nyanzapithecus alesi. Alesi was discovered in a desolate region of Kenya by John Ekusi, a member of Dr. Isaiah Nengo’s research team. In this talk, Dr. Nengo shared the story of finding this rare fossil, and he discussed the secrets that cutting-edge technology has uncovered about the life of this ancient infant.

Chet Kamin from The Leakey Foundation Board of Trustees and Zeray Alemseged of the University of Chicago provided the introductions.

About Isaiah Nengo:

Dr. Isaiah Nengo was born in Nairobi, Kenya. He is an associate director and research professor at the Turkana Basin Institute, Stony Brook University. He holds a BS in zoology and botany from the University of Nairobi and a PhD in biological anthropology from Harvard University. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the National Museums of Kenya and the University of Nairobi in 2012/13. Dr. Nengo’s research focuses on the search for the ancestors of apes and humans in Africa. He is the recipient of five Leakey Foundation Research Grants.

Grantee Spotlight: Joel Bray

Joel Bray is a PhD candidate at Arizona State University. He was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our spring 2017 cycle for his project entitled “Social relationships in male chimpanzees:  Form, function, and development.”

Joel Bray at Gombe National Park, Tanzania

Variation is the raw material of natural selection, yet we struggle to explain why individuals vary in complex traits such as social behavior. Why are some adult male chimpanzees highly gregarious and others less so? Why do some male pairs form strong and durable social bonds while others do not?

In my dissertation, I am investigating one source of variation: the role of development and early social experiences in male chimpanzee social behavior. During infancy and juvenility, chimpanzee mothers mediate their offspring’s social experiences by choosing which community members to travel with and for how long. I am interested in how this social exposure affects an individual’s social relationships, rank, and fitness later in life.

I focus on male chimpanzees for two reasons. Unlike females, all male chimpanzees remain in the community in which they were born; thus, early life social experiences may directly influence whom individuals interact with later in life. Additionally, male chimpanzees are more gregarious than females; social relationships are therefore likely to have a greater impact on male fitness.

Chimpanzees at Gombe National Park, Tanzania

Where am I? I’m currently living in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, where Jane Goodall conducted her pioneering and groundbreaking research. My fieldwork here will address questions such as when and how partner preferences emerge during development. Meanwhile, I am analyzing 56 years of long-term behavioral records at Gombe to examine social bonds over the course of individual lifetimes. In other words, I will compare observations from a male’s childhood to his behavior as an adult.

I anticipate that my dissertation will help to explain individual variation in adult male chimpanzee social behavior. Furthermore, although the natural history of adult chimpanzees is well understood, basic facts of chimpanzee development remain unknown. Thus, I hope that my fieldwork will also stimulate research on chimpanzee social development by helping people ask more detailed questions and generate more refined hypotheses.

Where does this research fit within the larger story of human origins? Chimpanzees are one of our two closest living relatives and face social pressures similar to those of early hominins. Chimpanzees therefore provide clues about our last common ancestor and what changes occurred in the hominin lineage.

From the Field: Kristin Sabbi, Uganda

Kristin Sabbi is a doctoral candidate at the University of New Mexico. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our spring 2016 cycle. Click here to read a brief summary of her project. Here she updates us on her third field season in Kibale National Park, Uganda.

This year marks my third and final dissertation data collection season, thanks to The Leakey Foundation. Over the last two field seasons, in 2015 and 2016, the chimpanzees at Kanyawara have been very good to me. As I’ve followed their infants and juveniles, I’ve witnessed some pretty incredible behaviors ranging from ultra-gentle males to unique tool use to once-in-a-lifetime chance events (both happy and sad). In 2015, I saw my first nursery play group of about a half dozen adult females and their offspring. I also followed an infant as an adult male carried her on his belly for a good 100m just to set her down and tickle her for almost an hour. In 2016, we were there to witness characterize how the rest of the group responded to both births and the falling death of a two-year old. But this year, brought one of the most amazing phenomenon I might ever be so lucky to witness.

But first, a bit about chimpanzees to help explain how incredible this summer was. Chimpanzees exhibit what we call a “fission-fusion” social system whereby the larger community breaks apart into smaller subgroups and ranges together throughout the day. For instance, our community has just under 60 chimpanzees, but you might find all kinds of variation among subgroups in a day. One chimp might feed in a tree on their own, or one mother traveling with just her offspring, or a small band of five or six males grooming on the trail, up to a mixed party doing any of the above! On average, the groups that I’ve followed during my data collection have averaged seven to 12 members (including infants and juveniles). Individual membership in these parties can be highly fluid and flexible throughout the day such that one chimp might range with a number of different parties between dawn and dusk. This system is a great one for a study like mine because chimpanzee mothers’ ranging preferences can lead their infants to have very different individual early life social experiences even though they are a part of the same community. However, it can also be difficult to make sure that I find and follow each infant and juvenile equally.

The academic “summer” term is always a great time to follow chimpanzees at Kanyawara because the chimps’ favorite food, Uvariopsis congensis, brings large, loud groups of them together. This is especially great for me not only because I get to spread out my follow time but also because I can capitalize on some rare opportunities to see more peripheral chimpanzees interacting in these large groups. As May rounded the corner, I was already excited for the 2017 Uvariopsis season. But I was completely unprepared for what we got!

It started out just like it had in previous years, a few fruits ripening in a few groves here and there, mostly in the center of the territory. A few of our more central females and their offspring started traveling with the core group of high ranking males. As more and more trees ripened, more chimps joined the foraging party, following the ripening crop further and further from the center of the territory. Each day fewer and fewer of them split off to forage on their own until, suddenly, one day in late May we realized that all but one of the Kanyawara chimps was here, foraging, and traveling, and sleeping together. Counter to their general proclivities, the community had effectively stopped fissioning and was spending their days traveling as a huge cohesive unit. We followed them like this for days, amazed at what we were seeing and the joy of seeing it. And then it just kept on going like that for weeks!


Of course, the best parts for me weren’t necessarily the foraging or traveling but the huge increase in social time! With so much food to go around, rates of interactions, both aggressive and affiliative, soared. While the almost-adult males ramped up their physical displays, vying for dominance, they played with each other and other group members just as often. Mothers and their offspring clumped together to play and groom. In fact, some moms were feeling so social that they played with each other to the exclusion of their infants! As play rates and grooming shot through the roof, so did my data collection. By the time that the Uvariopsis dwindled and the group finally began to fission again in mid-July, I had already captured multiple follows of every single infant and juvenile while they ranged, and played, with the whole community. Talk about wrapping things up on a high note!

It’s not necessarily unique to see so many chimps together, especially among the very large communities like Ngogo (230+ members). But to see such a large proportion of Kanyawara together and spending so much time traveling and playing with each other was truly exceptional. It could not have been a more perfect summer for data collection, and it is an experience I will cherish forever.

Utah at play, all day.

Grantee Spotlight: Laura Abondano

We are excited to begin sharing the work of our spring 2017 grantees! Here we have Laura Abondano, PhD candidate from the University of Texas at Austin, who was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant for her project entitled “Mating strategies of female lowland woolly monkeys in Amazonian Ecuador.”

Meet Grulla, an adult female woolly monkey, and her recently born baby girl, Grizzly. Grizzly is one of the infants that was born in the 2017 woolly monkey birthing season at our study site in the Ecuadorian Amazon. During the 2016 mating season, Grulla was perhaps the female that we saw engaging most often in sexual behaviors, and we saw her mate with almost every non-juvenile male in the group! Now, seven and a half months later (which is the average gestation period for woolly monkeys), she has given birth to this baby girl.

Grulla, a female woolly monkey, with her infant who was born during the 2017 birthing season.

Woolly monkey females are very active at soliciting males for copulation, and they do so by either presenting their genitals to a male, touching a male’s genitals, or by making a teeth chattering expression. Often these behaviors lead to the male mounting the female. What is really interesting is that female woolly monkeys, like Grulla, will display these solicitation behaviors to almost every adult male (and sometimes even subadult males) in the group. However, despite the fact that females copulate with multiple males in the group during a single ovulation cycle, not all males father babies equally. In fact, larger and presumably older adult males are the ones that sire most of the infants in our study groups. This discrepancy between the number of female mating partners and actual sires has caused us to wonder if woolly monkey females employ a strategy similar to that reported in some studies of women in which they become more selective of their mates during ovulation but still engage in sexual behaviors with other types of males outside their peak fertility period. By choosing to mate with larger males when they are they are ovulating but still copulating with other males outside their fertile period, woolly monkey females may be able to confuse paternity among the males and increase their chances of obtaining potential benefits (e.g., food sharing, protection, social interactions) from all males in the group.

From left to right: Laura Abondano (PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin), Savannah Perez (University of California at Santa Barbara), and David Mantilla (Universidad Central de Quito) following woolly monkeys at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, Ecuador.

During this 2017 field season with the help of two field assistants, I will be following female woolly monkeys that are sexually receptive, as well as females, like Grulla, that became pregnant during the 2016 mating season. Although Grulla is now no longer copulating, we are interested in seeing how males interact with her infant. If Grulla was successful at confusing Grizzly’s paternity last year, perhaps we will see multiple males engaging in affiliative behaviors with the infant. We hope to continue working with these woolly monkeys to determine whether male-infant interactions represent possible paternal affiliation or if males are engaging in social behaviors with infants to possibly influence females’ mate choice decisions and increase the male’s chances of mating with those infants’ mothers in the future.

Laura Abondano searching for radiocollared woolly monkeys.

Read more about Laura’s work and experiences! She mentioned that we might want to share the blog that she and Leakey Foundation grantee Kelsey Ellis have created.  This would “highlight that our work on the woolly monkeys at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station has been thanks to the funds that the Leakey Foundation has awarded to both Kelsey Ellis and myself.” Click here!