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Latest Gorilla Research at Karisoke

October 18, 2013

Latest Gorilla Research at Karisoke

Field staff at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International have been collecting data on mountain gorillas and their habitat for more than 45 years — and still the mountain gorillas have much to teach us! Every year, researchers visit the Fossey Fund’s Karisoke Research Center to conduct new and innovative studies that provide critical information to help conserve mountain gorillas and the ecosystem they depend on, and to improve the conditions of communities living near the park. Here’s a sampling of what’s new in research at the Fossey Fund this year:

Photogrammetry study of mountain gorillas

Jordi Galbany, Ph.D., at Zoo AtlantaPhotogrammetry is a relatively new technique that allows scientists to measure physical characteristics of wild animals using a camera, distance meter and calibrated laser pointers. The distance meter and laser pointers combined make it possible to determine the scale of a photograph relative to the size of the actual gorilla. By measuring body parts in the photo, scientists can determine mathematically the actual measurements of those body parts in real life. Post-doctoral researcher Jordi Galbany, Ph.D., from George Washington University, brought this technique to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in October, to begin a study of morphological traits and physical development in mountain gorillas monitored by the Fossey Fund. Galbany is working with long-term Fossey Fund collaborator Shannon McFarlin, Ph.D., who leads the Mountain Gorilla Skeletal Project.

Galbany spent several weeks in August practicing his technique on the captive western lowland gorillas at Zoo Atlanta, which hosts the Fossey Fund’s international headquarters and is also a member of our Gorilla Council. Since the gorillas at Zoo Atlanta are trained to present specific body parts to keepers, he had an opportunity to check the measurements he calculated using the photogrammetry technique against actual measurements that keepers had taken of the gorillas.

By conducting this study of mountain gorillas, Galbany hopes to learn more about how social and ecological factors affect mountain gorilla growth and development. The study also aims to partner with field sites studying western lowland gorillas, to gain a better understanding of how growth rates vary among populations that live in extremely different environments.

This two-year study is a collaborative effort of George Washington University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology, the Fossey Fund, Zoo Atlanta, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Funding has been provided by a grant from The Leakey Foundation and an internal grant from George Washington University.

Karisoke Director Felix Ndagijimana begins his Ph.D.

Felix Ndagijimana at the computerFelix Ndagijimana, director of the Karisoke Research Center, is spending time at the University of Montpellier in France this fall, where he is completing his Ph.D., under the guidance of Marie Charpentier, Ph.D. Using the Fossey Fund’s long-term data on mountain gorilla demography and health as well as microsatellite genetic analysis from mountain gorilla DNA samples that the Fossey Fund has been sending to the Max Planck Institute over the past decade, Ndagijimana is studying different measures of genetic fitness among the mountain gorillas monitored by the Fossey Fund as well as genetic factors that seem to influence mate choice among both male and female gorillas.

The study takes advantage not only of the fact that the Fossey Fund has been collecting data on a specific population of gorillas over a long period of time, but also that the Fossey Fund has detailed life history data available for individuals in the population. This will allow for much greater precision in describing relationships between genetic diversity and measures of genetic fitness, including lifespan, age of first reproduction, and number of offspring. Given that declining genetic diversity can be a threat to small, isolated populations like the Virunga mountain gorillas, information about the population’s genetic patterns, the fitness of various individuals and patterns of mate choice can be important tools for planning ahead to conserve the species. Ndagijimana has received support for his studies from Gorilla Council member Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

It will be interesting to see Ndagijimana’s expertise in mountain gorilla behavior and conservation and his background in microbiology, which he studied at the University of Mysore, India, converge through his doctoral research.

Research Assistant Jean Paul Hirwa completes study on E.coli in mountain gorillas

Jean Paul Hirwa in the fieldJean Paul Hirwa has been a research assistant at the Fossey Fund’s Karisoke Research Center since 2009 and worked with doctoral student Stacy Rosenbaum on her study of paternal investment in mountain gorillas. This year, he was able to conduct his own study on the possibility of disease transmission between gorillas and the humans and livestock that live near their habitat. His focus was on whether gorillas that frequently range outside of the park (and are more likely to encounter humans and livestock) show higher rates of antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli than gorillas who range outside of the park less frequently.

Indeed, his study seemed to show a correlation between the frequency with which gorillas ranged out of the park and the presence of resistant E.coli in fecal samples collected from these individuals. Studies like Hirwa’s provide important guidance for park management by specifically identifying risks when gorillas range out of the park and providing targeted information for creating plans to mitigate them. Hirwa’s study was generously supported through a grant from Gorilla Council member Partners in Conservation at the Columbus Zoo.

Hirwa didn’t have much time between this project and the next, though! He began assisting Galbany on the photogrammetry study in October.

The above represents just a sampling of the research carried out this year at the Fossey Fund’s Karisoke Research Center by scientists at all stages of their careers. Other research this year also includes a multi-disciplinary assessment of health and sanitation conditions in communities surrounding Volcanoes National Park that was led by students from Emory University this past summer. We look forward to providing updates on these projects as they forge ahead, and announcing new studies as they unfold.