Cleveland Here We Come: The Leakey Foundation Attends AAPA 2019!

The 88th Annual Meeting of American Association of Physical Anthropologists will be held March 27-30, 2019, in Cleveland, Ohio. Several Leakey Foundation staff members will be attending the meeting.

Here are a few of the things we have planned:

Booth 22

The Leakey Foundation will be at booth 22 in the Exhibitor’s Hall (Convention Center Ballroom BC). Come by, say hello, get to know the foundation staff and take a sticker or two! We will have information about our current (and new) grant programs, and even some special gifts for those of you who currently review for us.

From left: Elizabeth Archie, Susan Alberts, Jeanne Altmann

Portrait Studio at Booth 22

Did you receive an early-career grant from The Leakey Foundation? Your advisor (and their advisor) probably did too. We want you to take part in a mentor/protege photo series that documents multiple generations of scientists in our field.

Bring your advisor to our booth for a free professional portrait. We recommend you coordinate in advance so you don’t miss this special opportunity!

Thursday, March 28: 9am – 12pm and 1pm – 6pm
Friday, March 29: 1pm – 6pm

  • FREE

Grants Department Office Hours at Booth 22

Last year we tried something new. Paddy Moore and H. Gregory from our grant department held “office hours” at our booth to answer your questions about our grant programs, how to apply, etc.  This was such a success that we will return again with office hours on:

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday:  10am-11am
Thursday and Friday: 5pm-6pm.

These times overlap with the scheduled catering and coffee breaks (our booth will be right next to the goodies), so grab a snack and come by to talk to us. If those times don’t work, we will be at the booth often. Check the sign at our booth for additional “office hours.” And if you see Paddy or H. out and about, please feel free to say hi!

Career Development Panel:  How to Write a Grant Proposal

Friday 12:15-2:15

CC Room 20

The Leakey Foundation along with Wenner-Gren, the National Science Foundation and National Geographic is hosting a panel on how to write successful grant proposals for our programs. Learn about our organizations, our programs, and what we are looking for in a proposal. If you are new to the search for funding, this is the place to go!

We hope to see you at these events and throughout the conference!

From the Field: Sofya Dolotovskaya, Peru

Sofya Dolotovskaya of the German Primate Center was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our spring 2018 cycle for her project entitled “Does pair-living translate into genetic monogamy in a Neotropical primate?”

Sofya Ovsyanikova observing titi monkeys in the Peruvian Amazon.

By Sofya Ovsyanikova

I’m now back from my second and last field season in Peru, where I was studying red titi monkeys. My field site, Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco (EBQB), is located in north-eastern Peruvian Amazon, in the middle of nowhere. The closest village consists of just four families, and the station can be only reached by boat, which makes it a very isolated and peaceful place. Altogether, I spent 14 months doing fieldwork, and it has been an absolutely amazing experience.

The camp at Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco was Sofya Ovsyankova’s home for her 14 months of fieldwork in a remote area of the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Sofya Ovsyanikova.

Thatched canopies provide shade for tents and dining areas. Photo by Sofya Ovsyanikova.

My research investigates genetic and behavioral aspects of pair-living in titi monkeys — a textbook example of a “monogamous” primate. To see if social monogamy translates into genetic monogamy in my species, I collected fecal samples, which I will then use to run paternity analyses using microsatellite genotyping. Apart from that, I’m interested in the behavioral mechanisms of monogamy maintenance and in the benefits of pair-living and pair-bonding for males and females. Which sex is more involved in maintaining pair bonds and defending the group territory? Is the strength of pair bonds affected by reproductive period, demographic changes or seasonality? To answer these questions, I collected behavioral data with the special focus on the social interactions of adult male and female of each group and on the intergroup encounters.

A titi monkey relaxing in the trees. Photo by Sofya Ovsyanikova

Thanks to The Leakey Foundation, I was able to hire many local field assistants, which allowed me to habituate new groups of titis and to collect all the data I planned to (and even a bit more). Starting with just one habituated group back at the beginning of my first field season in 2017, we eventually habituated 10 new groups of titis.

Habituation didn’t always go smoothly, as the groups were very different in their reaction to people. With some of the groups, it took only weeks for the monkeys to fully accept us and to completely ignore our presence. But some groups were just as skittish after many months of habituation attempts as they had been in the beginning; with one especially “bad” group, we had to eventually give up after 8 months of trying. This difference still puzzles me, as it cannot be explained by either groups’ proximity to the camp or the habitat structure, nor by the possible prior exposure to hunting. However, other researchers at EBQB had very similar experience 20 years ago. One of the groups they were trying to habituate was still running from them after several months — and interestingly, it was located in the same area as our “bad” group. At the same time, they could easily habituate one group whose home range corresponds to one of our “good” groups. Since the monkey generations have surely changed since then, this pattern might have something to do with genetic traits (individual variation) — and also might tell us something about the dispersal patterns in titis.

Titi monkeys resting in the dense canopy. These shy monkeys are not easy to observe. Photo by Sofya Ovsyanikova.

Following the habituated groups was not always easy: Titis are among the shyest and most discreet of all monkeys, the groups are small (groups consist of a breeding pair and 1-3 offspring), and they can easily sneak away without making any noise if they feel like it. They often spend several hours in a row resting in a dense canopy (no doubt the reason they used to be considered one of the most “boring” monkeys until recently), and the frustration an observer feels then is hard to describe. Nevertheless, I was lucky to collect behavioral data from 7 best-habituated groups. I observed changes in groups composition (dispersal of subadults, the formation of a new family group and the births of infants), witnessed many intergroup interactions, saw encounters with predators, and got some interesting results on the changes in pair bonds and sex differences in monogamy maintenance behavior.

Precious samples being prepared for travel and testing. Photo by Sofya Ovsyanikova.

I was lucky with sample collection, too, and I got samples for 13 family groups. Some of our groups are from across the river, and some are quite distant from the others, which is quite interesting for the analysis of spatial genetic structure and dispersal patterns. Now I’m back at the German Primate Center (DPZ) doing lab work (and missing being in the field). As people working with fecal samples may well know, getting sufficient DNA from feces can be very tricky. After some struggling, I was finally able to get rid of PCR inhibitors and now can move on to microsatellite genotyping and mitochondrial DNA sequencing for paternity, relatedness, and spatial genetic structure analyses.

Origin Stories: Tepilit Ole Saitoti

In this never-before-released archival lecture from 1980, Maasai warrior, author, and Leakey Foundation grantee Tepilit Ole Saitoti discusses the Maasai culture and the challenges facing the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Maasai are semi-nomadic pastoralist people who live in Kenya and Tanzania. It’s estimated that there are over one million Maasai living today.

They make their living by herding sheep, goats, and cows. They move with the seasons to graze their herds. Their culture is centered around cattle, and their cultural traditions reach back thousands of years.

In the early 1900s, soon after the British first colonized East Africa, the Maasai lost around 60% of their traditional lands in a series of treaties. In the decades after that, they lost more land as the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments established National Parks and wildlife preserves.

In this episode of our Origin Stories podcast – another in our From the Archive series – Tepilit Ole Saitoti tells his story and the story of his people.

A group of Maasai warriors doing a traditional jumping dance.

Tepilit Ole Saitoti was born in Maasailand in Tanzania in 1949. His father had 36 children, and of those, Tepilit Ole Saitoti was the one who was chosen to go to school.

After graduating he returned home and became a warrior.

Later he worked as a ranger for the Serengeti National Park where he was discovered by a National Geographic film crew. In 1972, National Geographic made a documentary about Saitoti called “Man of the Serengeti.”

Saitioti later said he was dissatisfied by the stories other people were telling about the Maasai, and he decided he wanted to tell their story himself. He thought that education and storytelling were tools he could use to enable him to protect Maasai cultural traditions while helping his people to adapt.

So he earned a Bachelors degree in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston, and then with funding from The Leakey Foundation, he earned a master’s degree in natural resources and wildlife management from the University of Michigan.

In 1980, he wrote a book called Maasai with photographer Carol Beckwith, and he went on a Leakey Foundation speaking tour to share the story of his people. In 1988, he published an autobiography called The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior.

A flyer for a 1981 lecture by Tepilit Ole Saitoti at MiraCosta College. Note that this flyer says Saitoti’s father had 57 children. In his lecture he says his father had 36 children.

In this episode of Origin Stories, you’ll hear his Leakey Foundation lecture entitled “Maasai, the Land and People.” It was one of many lectures Saitoti gave on behalf of the Foundation during his lecture tours in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In this talk, he tells some of his life story, and he describes the Maasai way of life – including what it’s like to be a Maasai warrior.

Want to learn more about Maasai cultural traditions? Here are some resources:


New Chimpanzee Culture Discovered

Female Taï chimpanzee cracking Panda nuts with a stone hammer and a root as an anvil. Photo © Christophe Boesch

Chimpanzees have a more elaborate and diversified material culture than any other nonhuman primate. Their behavior varies across tropical Africa in a way that does not always correspond to ecology: for instance, only West African chimpanzees, but no others, use stone and wooden hammers to crack nuts in a number of populations, despite the wide availability of hammers and appropriate nuts across the species’ range. An understanding of the extent of this behavioral diversity is crucial to help researchers understand the likely incipient traditions of our own earliest hominin ancestors.

Chimpanzee tool types in Northern DR Congo. From left to right: tool for the extraction of Epigaeic Dorylus ants, honey (ground), honey (tree), Ponerine ants, Dorylus kohli ants; South Uele tools. Photo by Sonia Uribe.

Previously, several large-scale behavioral patterns in chimpanzees have been documented, including the use of clubs to pound open beehives in Central Africa and long tools to scoop up algae across multiple sites in West Africa. A team of researchers from the MPI-EVA and the University of Warsaw now present a detailed description of a new ‘behavioral realm’ in Eastern chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) of the Bili-Uéré region, Northern DR Congo. This set of behaviors covers a minimum of 50,000 km² and possibly extends across an even larger area. “Over a 12-year period, we documented chimpanzee tools and artifacts at 20 survey areas and gathered data on dung, feeding remains, and sleeping nests”, says lead author Thurston C. Hicks, guest researcher at the MPI-EVA and associate professor at the Faculty of ‘Artes Liberales’, The University of Warsaw. “We describe a new chimpanzee tool kit: long probes used to harvest epigaeic driver ants (Dorylus spp.), short probes used to extract ponerine ants and the arboreal nests of stingless bees, thin wands to dip for D. kohli, and stout digging sticks used to access underground meliponine nests.”

In addition, the researchers document an expanded percussive technology associated with food processing: in addition to pounding hard-shelled fruits against substrates (which is seen in other chimpanzee populations), the Bili-Uéré apes also pound open two kinds of termite mounds, Cubitermes sp. and Thoracotermes macrothorax, a resource that chimpanzees in most other regions ignore. These chimpanzees, on the other hand, appear not to exploit the common termite Macrotermes muelleri, for which chimpanzees fish at a number of other long-term research sites. “We have also documented tentative evidence of the pounding of African giant snails and tortoises against substrates, both novel food resources for chimpanzees. Finally, ground-nesting behavior is common across the area”, adds Hicks.

Despite an overall similarity of behaviors across two sides of a major river (the Uele) and in two very different habitat types (savannah-tropical forest mosaic to the north and tropical moist forest to the south), the research team encountered some geographic variation in the chimpanzees’ behaviour, including differing encounter rates for epigaeic driver ant tools, a lack of honey-digging tools to the south; and long driver ant probes and fruit-pounding sites only to the north of the Uele River.

“Nowadays we may feel like we have already discovered all there is to discover. What a nice surprise, then, to find a new chimpanzee behavioral realm! This just goes to show that not everything has yet been mapped out, and we have so much more to learn about the natural world”, says co-author Hjalmar Kühl, an ecologist at the MPI-EVA and the research center iDiv.

“In today’s overdeveloped world, opportunities such as this, to study a large intact nonhuman great ape culture interconnected across tens of thousands of kilometers of forest, are vanishingly rare”, says Hicks. “We need such natural laboratories in order to understand the way in which material culture spreads among healthy, thriving populations of hominids. Without this, it may be difficult to envisage the innovations made by our own ancestors in the woodlands of Africa millions of years ago”.

Leakey Foundation grantee Christophe Boesch, director of the Department of Primatology at the MPI-EVA and a co-author of the study, says: “It is great to have found these fascinating behavioral traits in this population. We simply hope that the many threats they face won’t wipe out these chimpanzees just as we are learning more about their uniqueness.”

The 12-year research project was carried out in collaboration with The Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, The Wasmoeth Wildlife Foundation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, L’Institut Congolais pour La Conservation de la Nature and the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam. Additional funding and support for the project was provided by and The Lucie Burgers Foundation for Comparative Behaviour Research in Arnhem, The Netherlands, The African Wildlife Foundation, and Karl Ammann.

This news release was provided by the Max Planck Institute Press Office.

New Findings Shed Light on Origin of Upright Walking

Excavations at the GWM67 site. Image credit: Scott Simpson, CWRU School of Medicine.

The oldest distinguishing feature between humans and our ape cousins is our ability to walk on two legs – a trait known as bipedalism. Among mammals, only humans and our ancestors perform this atypical balancing act. New research led by a Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine professor of anatomy with support from The Leakey Foundation provides evidence for greater reliance on terrestrial bipedalism by a human ancestor than previously suggested in the ancient fossil record.

Scott W. Simpson led an analysis of a 4.5 million-year-old fragmentary female skeleton of the human ancestor Ardipithecus ramidus that was discovered in the Gona Project study area in the Afar Regional State of Ethiopia.

This is a fossil hominin talus from site GWM67 (2005) at the time of its discovery. Photo credit: Case Western Reserve University

The newly analyzed fossils document a greater, but far from perfect, adaptation to bipedalism in the Ar. ramidus ankle and big toe than previously recognized. “Our research shows that while Ardipithecus was a lousy biped, she was somewhat better than we thought before,” said Simpson.

Fossils of this age are rare and represent a poorly known period of human evolution. By documenting more fully the function of the hip, ankle, and foot in Ardipithecus locomotion, Simpson’s analysis helps illuminate current understanding of the timing, context, and anatomical details of ancient upright walking.

Previous studies of other Ardipithecus fossils showed that it was capable of terrestrial bipedalism as well as being able to clamber in trees, but lacked the anatomical specializations seen in the Gona fossil examined by Simpson. The new analysis, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, thus points to a diversity of adaptations during the transition to how modern humans walk today. “The fact that Ardipithecus could both walk upright, albeit imperfectly, and scurry in trees marks it out as a pivotal transitional figure in our human lineage,” said Simpson.

Key to the adaptation of bipedality are changes in the lower limbs. For example, unlike monkeys and apes, the human big toe is parallel with the other toes, allowing the foot to function as a propulsive lever when walking. While Ardipithecus had an offset grasping big toe useful for climbing in trees, Simpson’s analysis shows that it also used its big toe to help propel it forward, demonstrating a mixed, transitional adaptation to terrestrial bipedalism.

Discoverers of the GWM67 locality and major hominin fossils (2005).
Asa Hamad Humet (left), Ali Ma’anda Datto (right). Image credit: Scott Simpson, CWRU School of Medicine.

Specifically, Simpson looked at the area of the joints between the arch of the foot and the big toe, enabling him to reconstruct the range of motion of the foot. While joint cartilage no longer remains for the Ardipithecus fossil, the surface of the bone has a characteristic texture which shows that it had once been covered by cartilage. “This evidence for cartilage shows that the big toe was used in a more human-like manner to push off,” said Simpson. “It is a foot in transition, one that shows primitive, tree-climbing physical characteristics but one that also features a more human-like use of the foot for upright walking.” Additionally, when chimpanzees stand, their knees are “outside” the ankle, i.e., they are bow-legged. When humans stand, the knees are directly above the ankle – which Simpson found was also true for the Ardipithecus fossil.

Location of the Gona Project study area. Derived from Simpson et al 2019. Image credit: Scott Simpson, CWRU School of Medicine.

The Gona Project has conducted continuous field research since 1999 with support from The Leakey Foundation. The study area is located in the Afar Depression portion of the eastern Africa rift and its fossil-rich deposits span the last 6.3 million years. Gona is best known as documenting the earliest evidence of the Oldowan stone tool technology.

The first Ardipithecus ramidus fossils at Gona were discovered in 1999 and described in the journal Nature in 2005. Gona has also documented one of the earliest known human fossil ancestors – dated to 6.3 million years ago. The Gona Project is co-directed by Sileshi Semaw, a research scientist with the CENIEH research center in Burgos, Spain, and Michael Rogers of Southern Connecticut State University. The geological and contextual research for the current research was led by Naomi Levin of the University of Michigan, and Jay Quade of the University of Arizona.

This research was made possible by use of the human and ape skeletal collections housed at the Laboratory of Physical Anthropology, Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Major financial support was provided by The Leakey Foundation, Spain’s Ministerio de Economia, Industria y Competitividad, Marie Curie EU Integration Grant, U.S. National Science Foundation, Case Western Reserve University, the National Geographic Society, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

Simpson, S., et al. “Ardipithecus ramidus postcrania from the Gona Project area, Afar Regional State, Ethiopia.” Journal of Human Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2018.12.005

This news release was provided by Case Western Reserve University.