Scientist Sunday: Leakey’s Angels Part I, Jane Goodall

From left to right, Biruté Galdikas, Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey (image from National Geographic)

Ok, we are going to do something a little different. Over the next three Sundays, Scientist Sunday will feature three scientists that comprise a group known as “Leakey’s Angels”. These three scientists are all incredible women who devoted themselves to studying apes; collectively they comprise Leakey’s Angels, so named because they all worked with archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey. They are Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. The name “Leakey’s Angels” was coined by Galdikas, first used in her book Reflections of Eden(1995) – a nod to the fact that she met Leakey in Los Angeles, the City of “Angels”.

Before we go into the scientists, let’s first define “ape”.

Apes are a group of tailless primates native to Africa and Southeast Asia. They are the largest primates in the world. Apes can be divided into two subgroups of living species:

  1. Hylobatidae, or gibbons, sometimes referred to as lesser apes.

Gibbons, the lesser apes

  1. Hominidae, which includes orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans. These are also known as the great apes.

Hominidae (the greater apes), which include gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, humans, and orangutans

Together, these species comprise the group “hominoids” (not to be confused with Hominidae!), which biologists use interchangeably with the term “ape”.

The tailless Barbary Macaque, commonly referred to as the “Barbary Ape”

In contrast, monkeys, also primates, typically are smaller and have tails, although some tailless monkeys are incorrectly called “apes” (such as the tailless Barbary macaque, which is known as the Barbary “ape”). Today’s monkeys are mostly native to Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America (plus the Barbary macaques, which thrive in Gibraltar). Some examples are macaques, baboons, tamarins, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys.

Leakey’s Angels observed apes. Specifically Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees, Dian Fossey gorillas, and Biruté Galdikas orangutans.

Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall with her stuffed chimpanzee, Jubilee (courtesy of Jane Goodall Institute)

Goodall was the first of Leakey’s Angels. She was born in London in 1934. On her first birthday, her father gave her a chimpanzee toy, which she named Jubilee. From an early age, she developed a fondness for animals and Africa.

When she was in her early 20s, her passion for Africa and animals brought her to friend’s farm in Kenya, where found work as a secretary in Nairobi. While she was there, she called Louis Leakey, a well-known archaeologist and paleontologist who was working in Kenya, hoping to meet with him and discuss animals. Her timing was fortunate, as Leakey was looking for a chimpanzee researcher. He believed that the study of chimps could shed insight into the behavior of our human ancestors.

Jane Goodall with Louis Leakey

Three years later, in 1960, Goodall went to Gombe Stream National Park, in Tanzania, and began the work that would eventually make her the world’s leading expert on chimpanzees. She began to observe chimpanzee behavior and social structures. Without formal scientific training, she improvised her own methods for observation. She came to know the quirks and personalities of all of the chimpanzees she studied, giving them names such as Goliath, Flo, and David Greybeard. Through her work, Goodall challenged several scientific beliefs regarding humans and apes.

Notable achievements:

Chimpanzee fishing for termites

One notion that Goodall dispelled was the belief that humans are the only species who are capable of constructing and using tools. During her time at the Gombe Reserve, she noticed chimpanzees poking stalks of grass into termite mounds to “fish” for termites. They would sometimes even harvest twigs from trees and strip off their leaves for the same purpose.

Godall also showed that chimpanzees ate meat, which banished the popular belief that chimps were vegetarians. In fact, she found that chimps had systematic hunting methods and would eat not just insects, but even smaller primates such as colobus monkeys.

Chimpanzees sitting together, one’s arm around the other (courtesy of Huffington Post)

Moreover, Goodall made significant observations regarding the social interactions and hierarchies of chimpanzees. She asserted that chimpanzees had personalities, and were capable of thinking and feeling emotions such as joy or sorrow. They demonstrated “human” gestures such as hugs, kisses, back- and head-pats, and tickling. These behaviors suggest that chimpanzees develop close, loyal, and sometimes life-long relationships between family members or other individuals within a community.

In addition to these displays of affection, Goodall observed social aggression. Chimpanzees adhere to social hierarchies within their communities – hierarchies that are often determined through belligerence and violence. For instance, Goodall witnessed dominant females killing younger females, and even practicing cannibalism, within their community in order to maintain their dominance.

In 1962, Goodall entered a doctorate program at Cambridge, where she received a PhD in Ethology, the study of animal behavior, without having ever attained a bachelor’s degree. Her thesis, based on her first five years of work at the Gombe Stream National Park, was entitled “Behavior of the Free-Ranging Chimpanzee”.

Below is a timeline delineating some of Goodall’s landmark discoveries from 1960-1997, taken from Adrian G. Weiss. Each point represents a year and crucial observations that Goodall made in said year.

She witnessed that chimpanzees:

  • 1960: 1) Eat meat 2) Use/ make tools
  • 1964: 1) Demonstrate deliberate planning to achieve specific goals 2) Use man-made objects
  • 1966: Are susceptible to polio and AIDS
  • 1970: Experience awe (danced at the sight of a waterfall in what Goodall believed to be awe)
  • 1974:  Wage warfare between groups
  • 1975: 1) Practice cannibalism 2) Form coalitions to challenge social statuses 3) Transfer females between social groups
  •  1987: Adopt orphaned chimpanzees as their own
  • 1994: 1) Engage in short-term monogamous relationships 2) observe and learn toolmaking behavior from other chimps
  • 1995: 1) Give birth to twins 2) Chew medicinal plants

 After gaining prominence from her research, Goodall became actively involved in conservation initiatives. In 1977, she established the Jane Goodall Institute, which supports community-based conservation and development projects in Africa. JGI has a youth program offshoot known as Roots and Shoots. Goodall also served as president of Advocates for Animals – an organization dedicated to eliminating the use of animals in medical research, farming, zoos, and recreation – from 1998-2008.

The Jane Goodall Institute’s Youth Program, Roots & Shoots

Why I admire her:

Jane Goodall interacting with a curious chimp

Jane Goodall pursued her passions regardless of the fact that she did not hold any formal scientific training. She received an opportunity, and immersed herself in a dream she had held since childhood, pursuing her work with vigor and determination despite harsh conditions, sickness, and initial discouragement. People often criticize Goodall for her unconventional methodology, suggesting that she became emotionally attached to the animals she was studying. However, perhaps because she arrived at science through unconventional means, Goodall was unafraid to take risks and pursue the creative methods that allowed her to become a pioneer, and eventually foremost expert in primatology. Her time at the Gombe Reserve required incredible perseverance, resourcefulness, and tenacity. She worked long hours in isolation in order to observe the chimpanzees, and often had to devise methods as she went along. Ultimately. Goodall’s work drastically altered our understanding of hominoids – her research narrowed the perceived gap between chimpanzees and humans, giving us insight into the behavior of early hominids.

Stay tuned next week for an entry about Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda!


9 thoughts on “Scientist Sunday: Leakey’s Angels Part I, Jane Goodall

  1. Pingback: Public Service Announcement: CreatureCast Screening! | Ink Chromatography

  2. ” However, perhaps because she arrived at science through unconventional means, Goodall was unafraid to take risks and pursue the creative methods that allowed her to become a pioneer, and eventually foremost expert in primatology.”

    I am no expert on JG but this line is inspiring! Brilliant post.

  3. Pingback: Scientist Sunday: Leakey’s Angels Part II, Dian Fossey | Ink Chromatography

  4. Pingback: Scientist Sunday: Leakey’s Angels Part III, Biruté Galdikas | Ink Chromatography

  5. Pingback: it all started with jane

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