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February 20, 1996

Jane Goodall's Chimps Go Digital

By JANE E. BRODY
LOS ANGELES -- HOLD on to your mouse: Jane Goodall's Gombe chimps are going digital. No, these wild anthropoids have not yet learned to use the computer, but any human who can, will be able to discover billions of bytes about their behavior without ever having to leave a desktop PC.

By the time the ambitious project is completed, Gary Seaman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California here, whose real specialty is Chinese ritual, will have created some 200 CD-ROM's of Gombe chimps in action, complete with highly descriptive texts, maps and other materials gleaned from 32 years of laborious field research by the world's most famous observer of primate behavior.

Both field biologists, and anthropologists who are also using the technique to store observations of humans, say the interactive computer disks, and the videos from which they are being made, represent an incomparable resource, not only for students but also for researchers who have long depended on note-taking, audio recordings and somewhat subjective observations.

Dr. Seaman, who is director of the Center for Visual Anthropology at USC, has already created, with his colleague Homer Williams, a research archive of about 40 CD-ROM's on the Yanomamo Indians of South America, who have been studied for 32 years by Dr. Napoleon Chagnon, anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

That archive is available for researchers to use at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Chagnon, who called the new approach "probably the most powerful thing I've seen, not only for teaching but also for research," predicted that "it will be the wave of the future, an easy way to tap into a vast amount of information" that heretofore had been available to only one or two people.

Dr. Jane B. Lancaster, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, said the computer technique will permit "a level of analysis never before available in field biology." And Dr. Frans de Waal, psychologist and anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta, predicted that through videos and digitized material, "there will probably be a time when theories can be tested in an office anywhere, without going into the field."

In extolling the virtues of film, Dr. Christopher Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California here, said the human eye is necessarily selective. Send a trained observer into the field with pen and notebook and you will get lots of data, but only about activities the observer thought relevant at the time and only those activities the observer had time to record.

The video camera, Dr. Boehm said, records anything and everything the chimps do while the lens is pointed at them and the motor is running.

So in 1986, two years after joining the Goodall project in Tanzania's Gombe National Park, Dr. Boehm started a jungle film school. In an intensive two-week course, he trained Ms. Goodall's Tanzanian field assistants in the operation of mini-video cameras.

These assistants, who have on average a third-grade education, were already experts at watching chimps for hours on end and writing down what they saw in field-observer code. And none have totally abandoned pen and notebook in favor of the new research tool, Dr. Boehm said, since observers with synchronized watches go out in pairs or groups and one observer always takes detailed, timed notes while another does the filming.

"With a video camera," he explained, "you don't need to be an expert photographer to get a lot of terrific footage. You just point and shoot. With our diminutive cameras, we can film the chimps anywhere they go at anything they do. Not only does the camera record the action in its entirety, it also picks up the accompanying vocalizations" and can record comments from the observer. He said the hardest part had been recharging the batteries in the jungle, where a gasoline generator and solar batteries must substitute for electrical outlets.

In the near-decade since the video project began, nearly 600 hours of videotaped behavior, including virtually every vocalization the chimps make, have been recorded. About 150 hours of the best material are being coded and digitized for computer read-out on CD-ROM's in a project Dr. Seaman calls "Virtual Chimps." Eventually, Dr. Seaman said, Virtual Chimps may be available on the Internet so that anyone anywhere with a computer and access to the World Wide Web could study the Gombe chimps in living color fully annotated with descriptions based on Ms. Goodall's 333-word lexicon of chimp activities.

Perhaps most valuable to the researcher are the videos from which the computer disks are derived. The films have already yielded some surprising interpretations and reinterpretations of chimp behaviors. For example, the alpha male, Goblin, of Ms. Goodall's study animals, was observed one day running up a tree and tossing two fighting females toward the ground. Initially, Gombe scientists thought that Goblin was just being a typical aggressive male expressing his dominance.

But when the video was viewed over and over again, it became obvious that Goblin was acting more the peacemaker than the warrior. He had tossed the females from their tree-top perch to break up their fight; as they fell, they had to let go of one another so they could grab branches to avoid hitting the ground. Goblin then raced up and down the tree, chasing one of the females up and the other down and making sure they did not try to resume their dispute.

"This was an ingenious way to stop the fight," said Dr. Boehm. As a cultural anthropologist who originally studied conflict and conflict resolution among Mountain Serbs, he took readily to Ms. Goodall's training to study similar behaviors in chimpanzees. "The video made an ex post facto microanalysis possible. Often in the field, things happen very rapidly and involve many individuals. Even the very best observer would have very great difficulty recording it all. But not the camera."

In another tell-tale video, Goblin was leading a troop on patrol when the animals caught sight of an enemy troop approaching. Would the encounter result in a screaming match, or a fight, or would one or both troops retreat?

What the camera recorded, in Dr. Boehm's interpretation, was a group "decision" about how best to proceed. Dr. Boehm said one member of the troop began to vocalize softly, then choked off his sounds and turned to look at his leader, Goblin, who then rushed past him to get a better look at the enemy. Goblin looked at the chimp who served him as a sort of first mate and at the chimp who issued the initial scream. Within 54 seconds, after having visually "consulted" with his mates, Dr. Boehm said, Goblin made a decision and the entire troop began screaming and hooting and jumping about in a display of their toughness. The approaching troop did the same, and after a while both troops withdrew and went home.

"Without the opportunity to view this encounter literally dozens of times on the video, I never would have seen this exchange of glances, almost like a conference, which resulted in a group decision about how to behave," Dr. Boehm said in an interview. "If the incident had been recorded on paper by a field assistant, we would have had a reasonably detailed description of the actions, but the information would never have come across as a decision."

Even the super expert, Jane Goodall, is sometimes baffled by field observations that become explicable once seen on a video screen. For example, Ms. Goodall was filming two young chimps, Fanny and her baby sister Flossi, who were frolicking at the side of a stream while their mother, Fifi, dozed nearby. The youths were looking at something in the water, "their reflection, perhaps," Ms. Goodall surmised. At 10 or 15 feet from the animals, which is the closest researchers allow themselves to get, she could not tell what was so fascinating.

Suddenly Flossi went to a nearby tree, broke off a branch, stripped it of leaves, and returned to the stream. She began poking the stick into the stream as if "termiting the water," Ms. Goodall said, then putting the wet end to her mouth. This is the technique the chimps use to extract termite meals from a mound, but Ms. Goodall remarked that she'd "never seen this before" in water.

Was Flossi "termite fishing" in the stream? Using the stick as a sponge to get a drink? Or what? Enlarged on the screen and viewed frame by frame, the video provided new insights, Dr. Seaman said. Having seen her elders use a stick tool to collect termites, Flossi seemed to be trying to use the same technique to extract tadpoles from the stream. And had the stream housed clutching crawfish instead of slippery tadpoles, Flossi's experiment might have succeeded and a chimp "invention" would have been born.

"A researcher could go into the whole corpus of video tapes and look for segments where the observer couldn't figure out what was happening," Dr. Seaman said. "The videos provide a powerful tool for new discoveries and for testing hypotheses."

But even videos have their limitations, the scientists said. Though film is more objective than human observations, a human decision-maker determines where to point the camera. And not everyone has the time or patience to watch hundreds of hours of film to find a few examples of the behavior they wish to study. "Films don't have page numbers," Dr. Seaman noted. Hence the CDs. They will, in effect, serve as a quick-access library. By requesting any topic in the "card catalogue," any and all examples of the topic can be viewed on the computer in minutes.

But it will take several years to compress the already voluminous and still-growing amount of video data into computer memory and annotate it properly. The main obstacle right now is the large amount of money Dr. Boehm needs to get hundreds of hours of video plus the written and spoken field notes coded into small pieces of information that the computer can handle. Dr. Seaman's job is setting up the computerized retrieval system so that all this material can be digitized and called up on a screen in a sophisticated way that saves incredible amounts of time.

Dr. Seaman is also thinking about making some of the computerized material three-dimensional so that viewers with wrap-around goggles could experience Virtual Chimps as virtual reality, in the field at Gombe with the world's most studied primates. It is a task that at the moment Gary Seaman finds Cx@@ Similar projects are under way elsewhere. For example, at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., material  l֔<=>?@Al֔BXl֔l<l  Ll֔F )$*HTD  @??Ll֔F )$*HTD  @??Ll֔l֔Hide SimpleText<l֔l4t6@l֔`HHe | Sections | Contents | Search | Forums | Help

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company



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