Conversations with: Dr Ammie Kalan

This week’s guest is Dr Ammie Kalan, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology! Ammie is a postdoctoral researcher investigating chimpanzee culture and communication as part of the Pan African Project: The Cultured Chimpanzee. Over her career as a primatologist, Ammie has conducted fieldwork in Guinea-Bissau, Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire, Republic of Congo and Costa Rica. She has developed a passive acoustic monitoring system for primates living in tropical forests and continues to be interested in bridging the gap between behavioural research and applied conservation through the use of non-invasive monitoring. Next year, she will be starting as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada!

Dr Ammie Kalan in the savannah woodlands of Boé, Guinea-Bissau, researching the rare accumulative stone throwing behaviours chimpanzees engage in there. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

I am a primatologist who specializes in great ape behavioural ecology, with a particular interest in tool use, culture and communication. I also actively work on improving remote methods used to study wild primates, not just great apes, in the field, namely passive acoustic monitoring and camera-trapping.

What originally drew you towards primatology?

When I was in grade 5, so about 10 years old, I remember learning about endangered species, particularly the mountain gorilla and having the feeling that I wanted to do something to help and to know these creatures better. Not too long after I remember watching in awe as David Attenborough got up close and personal with wild mountain gorillas on an episode of BBC Life (I think?) and never being able to forget that remarkable moment. Growing up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest I knew I wanted to dedicate my career to wildlife ecology and/or environmental conservation but I could not get these wild great apes out of my head. So after studying Zoology for my BSc I volunteered for my first experience studying wild primates in Costa Rica as a research assistant and soon after applied for a Masters program that specialized in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. After moving to Oxford for this masters I was able to have my very own run in with wild gorillas (western lowland gorillas) when I conducted my first field research in Africa at the Lac Tele Reserve in the Republic of Congo for my dissertation project.

Ammie biking to the remote camp site in Boé after a brief visit to a nearby village to stock up on supplies and use electricity. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

My PhD was on the social and ecological context of chimpanzee acoustic communication and its potential for biomonitoring. It was essentially two projects simultaneously since my supervisors were concerned by the riskiness of my biomonitoring project that they wanted to make sure I would have a backup plan, so to speak. This suited me just fine because I got the best of both worlds, I was able to do a project that was novel, technically challenging, but would be pioneering if it worked and also be able to follow habituated chimpanzees on foot to record their vocalizations and try to better understand what they might be communicating to one another. In the end, the biomonitoring project was generally a success, since I was able to show how remote audio recording units can be installed in a forest to record wild primate sounds that can later be extracted from these continuous forest recordings using semi-automated algorithms and thereby provide biologists with large-scale data on primate presence in an area. I was also able to make some interesting new observations about chimpanzee food calls and pant hoot vocalizations with the data I recorded following individual chimpanzees, not to mention the incredible privilege to be able to get to know individual chimpanzees as they tolerated my presence from the moment they woke up until they built their evening nests.

Ammie recording food calls and pant hoot vocalisations of the Taï chimpanzees in the Côte d’Ivoire. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

I am currently a postdoctoral research for the Pan African Programme based at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Here I work on integrating behavioural data we have collected from over 40 PanAf temporary research sites to better understand the ecological and environmental drivers and threats to chimpanzee behavioural and cultural diversity. Much of this work has already helped me to establish new collaborations and to start my own research projects, such as on chimpanzee accumulative stone throwing based in Boe, Guinea-Bissau with the support of NGOs such as the Chimbo Foundation. In the future I will continue to use the PanAf dataset as a means to investigate questions that have thus far been difficult to answer using only a handful of populations.

Overview of the PanAf project’s methodological approach. (Credit doc.station Medienproduktion GmBh, http://panafrican.eva.mpg.de/english/press.php)

Why is your research important for understanding human evolution?

Studying great apes such as chimpanzees provides us with the unique opportunity to observe and investigate the characteristics of a species closely related to humans that is still living today. The same cannot be said for the many fossils we have of our hominin ancestors, therefore primatology in general can provide great comparative insight into the course of human evolution given that we too are primates. For example, if we consider that the chimpanzee or Pan lineage split from the Homo lineage approximately 7-8 million years ago, then by comparing these two lineages today we can hypothesize which traits would have been present in our last common ancestor.

Ammie following habituated chimpanzees of the Taï Chimpanzee Project. They wear face-masks and maintain a distance of 10m to protect the chimpanzees from potential diseases that they may carry and vice versa. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

What is your favourite memory from the field?

It’s very difficult to pick one but a particular moment does stick out.  While I was following the habituated chimpanzees of the Taï Chimpanzee Project there was one day when the individual I was following met up with other members of the group at a nice, open nut cracking site. As we arrived, I sat on a dead log to rest my feet while still observing my focal and as I did so one of the adolescent males at the time, called Ibrahim, started to walk directly towards me. Now Ibrahim was a bit naughty, as young male chimpanzees going through puberty often are, where he often displayed curiosity and interest in the human researchers and would at times come too close to us. So, I was a bit apprehensive about what his intentions were this time since I was well aware of the fact that I was in a sitting position and we were essentially eye to eye. As he got closer, I noticed he had a small stick in his mouth and was playfully running up to me. He then stopped about just a meter short of me and threw the small stick at my feet while making a lovely play face: he had just invited me to start playing with him using an object invitation as chimps commonly do amongst each other. I felt very honoured and happy inside but could not display any response since this is how we maintain a healthy separation from the chimps. He waited for me to do something and did look a bit disappointed when I didn’t move an inch but then quickly turned his attention to another more playful participant that had followed him and I could then move away from them to maintain a better distance. It took all my restraint to not react to his invitation that day.

Kuba, an adult male chimpanzee of the South group Taï chimpanzees. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

What is the best thing about your job and what is one thing you would change if you could?

I love that I get to work in the field, immersed in wild places and wild animals where essentially anything can happen. It can be a little daunting at times, even scary or terrifying in some of the places/ circumstances in which I’ve worked, but it is never boring or repetitive. You never know what discovery awaits you when you are in the field and the excitement that comes from experiencing that is well worth the strenuous physical and psychological toll that being in remote, isolated places can bring. The one thing I would change if I could is that there would be fewer insects to contend with while collecting data, or at least that they would ignore us humans as potential prey. For example the little flies that go right into your eyes so that you literally cannot see, or the flies that lay eggs under your skin, or the ants that in a second will get underneath all your clothes and painfully bite you all over….

If you were not an primatologist, what would you be?

I would’ve become an environmental scientist, a route that I once seriously considered before choosing to do my masters degree in primate conservation. I was particularly fond of tropical forest ecology and interested in assessing and mitigating the effects of human disturbance on natural ecosystems so I’m sure I would have ended up not too far from what I am doing now.

A look out point over the Issa valley in Tanzania where the Greater Mahale Ecosystem Research and Conversation Project (https://gmerc.org/) hosted one of the PanAf sites. (Credit: Ammie Kalan)

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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