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Gorilla study informs understanding of brain structures
Friday, January 30, 2015

Dian Fossey came to Africa at the urging of famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, who was studying human evolution in Africa and hoped that studying primates in the wild would help us better understand ourselves. In 1967, Dian Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda’s gorilla habitat, and indeed her groundbreaking studies of gorilla behavior became important not only for the conservation of the species but for greater scientific understanding.

Today, much of what the scientific community knows about gorillas originated from the Karisoke Research Center, which has been involved in more than 200 publications on gorillas and the surrounding biodiversity. As research at Karisoke continues to blossom and inspire, a variety of new studies are showing us more and more about gorillas, humans, and many other aspects of science.

Fossey Fund President and CEO/Chief Scientific Officer Tara Stoinski, Ph.D., along with other gorilla experts, recently co-authored a new study looking at variations in brain structure between eastern and western species of gorillas, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The researchers examined postmortem magnetic resonance images (MRIs) of brains from 18 captive western lowland gorillas, 15 wild mountain gorillas, and three Grauer’s gorillas (all of whom had died of natural causes).

Western and eastern gorillasStereologic methods were used to measure the volumes of brain structures, such as the left and right frontal lobe, temporal lobe, and many other structures, and found various differences among the species. For example, the volumes of the hippocampus and cerebellum were significantly larger in western gorillas than in the eastern gorillas.

The researchers theorize that these anatomical differences may relate to divergent ecological adaptations of the two species. Western gorillas spend more time foraging in trees, and thus may rely more on cerebellar circuits. They also tend to eat more fruit and have larger home ranges, and consequently might depend more on the spatial mapping functions of the hippocampus area of the brain, which is a part of the system that is involved in spatial memory and navigation.

The study is significant because while it is known that eastern and western gorillas are distinct in terms of behavior, morphology and ecology, this research indicates that brain structures also show species-level variation. In addition, it is also important for enhancing greater scientific understanding of how environmental factors, such as the distribution of food, influence the evolution of brain structure.

Following little-known Grauer’s gorillas in Congo
Monday, January 26, 2015

Due to years of civil unrest and other obstacles, Grauer’s gorillas (found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo) have received little protection and minimal study, but we know their numbers are falling. This type of gorilla is included among the 25 most-endangered primates in the world by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Tracking Grauer's gorillas in CongoIn 2012, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund established a permanent research and conservation field station in the village of Nkuba, in the heart of the Grauer’s gorilla range in eastern Congo, also home to other highly endangered wildlife.  We have intensively surveyed an adjacent 700-square-kilometer area (which is more than four times the size of the available gorilla habitat in all of Rwanda) and identified a population of some 150 Grauer’s gorillas living in 14 groups, which we are now regularly monitoring and protecting through our presence in the forest. But the process of tracking gorillas here is very different from our work following habituated gorilla groups in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

In Congo, we set up camp in the field and the gorillas are not habituated to human presence. Once trackers find a nest site, they follow the trails of the group, leaving one day’s distance between them in order to not stress the gorillas or alter their activities.

Here’s what Research and Conservation Program Manager Escobar Binyinyi says are among the top five things trackers look for once they’ve found a nest site:

  • What the gorilla consumes: To study this, we look at food remains and what part of the plant was left by the gorillas. From what they left, we can determine what they ate, such as the leaves, bark, stems and fruit.
  • The nature of the nest sites: We look at whether the nests are terrestrial or tree nests. We also look at whether they are night nests or day nests.
  • How old various signs of the gorillas’ presence are:  We determine whether they are one, two, three, four or more days old.

Can you guess what some of the other “clues” our trackers look for are? Some of our trackers have special talents and knowledge of the forest that help them identify key signs and other important information! To get answers and read more about gorilla tracking in Congo, how our staff prepares to go into the forest and what happens if a trail is lost, be sure to read our March eNews! It’s free to sign up if you haven’t already.   http://gorillafund.org/newsletter_signup

Karisoke director pays tribute to Dian Fossey
Friday, January 16, 2015

Felix Ndagijimana was appointed as the first Rwandan director of the Karisoke Research Center on Jan. 16, 2012 — a historic moment on a historic date, marking what would have been Dian Fossey’s 80th birthday. Three years later, the Fossey Fund commemorates the birthday of our founder and the appointment of the Karisoke director. In tribute to Dian Fossey, here’s a special Q&A with Felix:

Dian Fossey How did you learn about Dian Fossey and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund?
I first learned about Dian Fossey after she had been murdered, from a magazine for kids in primary school that had a story about mountain gorillas. I was curious to know more about who she was, why she was doing what she was doing and why she had been murdered. All these questions were answered a few years later when my family and I saw the movie “Gorillas in the Mist.” Around that same time, I learned about “The Digit Fund.” It wasn’t until later that I found out that the Digit Fund had been renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and that this organization has continued the work of Dian Fossey.

How has Dian’s legacy lived on 29, years later?
The work started by Dian Fossey to save the mountain gorillas has not only continued after her death but it has also expanded to save other species of gorillas in Africa. With regard to mountain gorillas, their numbers continue to increase and this is very encouraging. Some of the gorillas that Fossey habituated for research are still alive today and some, such as Cantsbee, have been leaders of their groups for many years and have taught us so much about gorilla behavior.

The involvement of the local community in the conservation of gorillas has had a positive impact on both people and gorillas, hence the importance of the Fossey Fund’s work with communities living adjacent to forest where gorillas live in Africa. The Fossey Fund continues to provide training and educational opportunities to Rwandans.

What do you feel Dian would think of where the Fossey Fund is today?
I think she would be very proud to see that the work she started almost 50 years ago to study and protect the mountain gorillas has continued and that the Fossey Fund (formerly her Digit Fund) has grown into this unique organization that has kept her dream alive. I think she would also be amazed to see the daily operations to monitor and protect gorillas in Rwanda and how the team at Karisoke has grown to 105 full- time staff members.

How do you view the significance of your role as the first Rwandan director of the Karisoke Research Center?
I am very honored to be the first Rwandan to lead the Karisoke Research Center, a world-renowned research institution with a rich history of research and conservation achievements that also provides training and educational opportunities for Rwandans. I am incredibly lucky to be doing what I am doing and to be working with such a dedicated team of staff at Karisoke. I am very proud of the incredible work done by everyone at Karisoke.

If Dian were alive, what would you want to show her about the Fossey Fund’s work today?
The past year was full of changes within the gorilla groups we monitor. The changes — such as the  formation of new groups, transfers and expansion of home ranges —  come with challenges. So if Dian were alive today, the first thing I would show her is the work done by everyone to monitor and protect the gorillas, despite many challenges we faced in 2014.

I would also show her the recently built Bisate Learning Center. This is a project funded by Partners in Conservation (PIC) and the Fossey Fund to build a library and provide computers for Bisate primary and secondary schools, with the goal of providing better learning conditions for children living near the park. I would also tell her about the impact of the Fossey Fund’s training programs, which benefit undergraduate students from the University of Rwanda.

Finally, I would show Dian the work of the Fossey Fund in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and how the work she started in Rwanda continues to inspire people in Africa.

Fossey's work inspires recent gorilla visitor
Thursday, January 15, 2015

Years after Dr. Dian Fossey’s life was cut short, her impact on conservation and dedication to mountain gorillas still inspires people around the world. Beatrice Burgo, who lives in France, is among the many people who were influenced by Dian Fossey’s passion. And, Burgo has begun a tradition to honor her hero by visiting Rwanda every other year.

Burgo, like Fossey, was passionate about animals beginning at a very young age. She initially dreamed of becoming a veterinarian but financially was unable to. Still, she continued to educate herself about animals and became interested in apes. “Everything about gorillas captured me; I was subjugated by them,” Burgo says.

Beatrice Burgo at KarisokeShe first read about Fossey in an article when she was just 12 years old. Although in the article Fossey was labebed as reckless for going to Africa to study mountain gorillas, Burgo took the article as a sign to keep learning about gorillas — and about Fossey. Burgo says she never stopped looking for information about Fossey, despite limited access in France at that time. She also began to visit zoos to observe western lowland gorillas.

When the death of Fossey was announced on the radio on Dec. 26, 1985, Burgo describes it as the saddest of news: “The woman I admired most, after my mother, was murdered. The news was like losing a member of my family.” From that day forward, Burgo made it her goal to one day visit Rwanda and see the gorillas Fossey dedicated her life toward saving.

In September 2010, Burgo finally reached her goal and traveled to Rwanda to observe the gorillas as a 50th birthday present to herself. She was able to trek to see two different groups, feeling Fossey’s presence with her as she climbed. When she reached the gorillas, she was overcome with emotion and was unable to take any photos for 20 minutes because of the tears in her eyes.

During this stay, Burgo was unable to visit Fossey’s grave and was devastated, vowing to return again. In 2012, Burgo returned to Rwanda to revisit “Dian’s gorillas” and was finally able to pay homage to her inspiration and bring flowers to Fossey’s grave.

 “Rwanda became my heart country and its inhabitants my second family,” Burgo said.

In September 2014, Burgo returned again and was able to meet with Fossey Fund staff Felix Ndagijimana, Veronica Vecellio and Clare Richardson. Burgo describes her most recent visit with the Fossey Fund as one rich with emotions and beautiful encounters.

“I know the daily work done by each member of the Fossey Fund and for that I support — with what I can — the team that works hard to carry on the work and the research of Dian. This is my way to help, my friends, the gorillas to survive.”

Young male Ntaribi rejoins group
Tuesday, January 06, 2015

A young male gorilla who had been traveling alone since early November was seen back in a group this morning. Fossey Fund trackers were relieved to see 7-year-old Ntaribi in Ugenda’s group, because he is too young to be traveling alone, but had been doing so since his original group lost its leader (silverback Bwenge) and then eventually merged with another group (Ugenda’s). (See blog post of Dec. 22 for details).

Young male NtaribiThe Fossey Fund designated a special team of trackers just to follow Ntaribi while he was alone, though they were not able to locate him every day. Today, in Ugenda’s group, he seemed to be doing fine and no aggressive behaviors toward him were seen. He played with young male Ubushake and was even groomed by silverback Ugenda.

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