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Dr Cat Hobaiter

Dr Cat Hobaiter

Dr Cat Hobaiter, primatologist at University of St Andrews, has spent 14 years studying wild chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda, bringing a new understanding to their communication – and the evolution of language.

Primatology has these amazing female role models: Diane Fossey; Jane Goodall; Joan Silk. I have an increasing appreciation of how hard it must have been for them as pioneers, working out in the field for the first time. I’ve recently been habituating two groups of chimpanzees in forests in Uganda where there is no infrastructure or support in place. It has given me a small sense of how exciting – and intimidating – it must have been for these women back in the 1960s and 1970s.

There has been a lot of research on vocal communication used by chimpanzees but little on gesture, especially in the wild. Our work showed gestures are important to every aspect of their lives: communicating with their babies; fighting with neighbours; or grooming with a friend. It was hard to capture their interactions on camera – the rainforest is very dark, wet and chimps climb trees very quickly – so it was particularly rewarding to have made that contribution to understanding chimpanzee behaviour.

Our work so far has focussed on one forest, which, in terms of communication, is like learning the language in Birmingham and thinking it will help you in Thailand and Venezuela. So we’re now looking at other populations, including chimpanzees in different areas and also gorillas and bonobos, to see if ‘accents’ or ‘dialects’ exist. It will give us a greater understanding of Great Ape communication – and also an insight into the evolutionary origins of language.

Having watched chimps interact with people, I think being a small woman gives you an advantage when working in the field. The chimps don’t see you as any kind of threat and just go about their business. My top advice is always choose a field assistant who is taller than you – they get the spider webs in the face while you duck under branches.

Male chimpanzees live their whole lives in the same community but females can migrate. On one occasion, we were tracking an unknown community of chimpanzees in a neighbouring forest. We were getting closer, when suddenly a chimp swung right past me. We both did a double take because it was Nora, a chimp who had been an infant when I’d started my PhD. She had grown up with me hanging around, but left years ago, so it was particularly special that she remembered me.

Growing up, it never occurred to me there were things I couldn’t do because of my gender. It was only when I left home I realised not everyone thinks like that. So now I visit schools and use social media to engage with people who might not think of women as scientists. Regardless of gender or background, fieldwork in primatology requires determination and passion – to know that sitting in a swamp for three weeks will eventually get you the results you need. Well, that and being comfortable with long drop toilets and army ants in your shoes.