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News :: Granddaughter of Vinton residents feels at home among chimpanzees of West Africa
· 11:59am September 1st, 2014
In Western Africa, where a savanna woodland scattered with trees divides the Sahara Desert to the north from the fertile but shrinking rain forests located to the east and south of Senegal, a primitive hut is awaiting the Iowa woman who can't wait to see it again – along with her friends and the chimpanzees they have made a career of studying.
“I crave adventure, said Erin Wessling, the granddaughter of Ralph and Marge Wessling of Vinton. “I miss those bucket showers.”
But it's much more than the adventure of living for two weeks at a time without electricity or running water that lures Wessling more than 5,000 miles from her native Minnesota. Her love of animals, especially chimpanzees, has inspired her to devote her life to helping humans understand the impact of changing environment on primates.
“I always knew I wanted to work with animals,” said Wessling. When she was in third grade, her class took a field trip to a university where JaneGoodall spoke about her work with chimps.
From that moment on, Wessling's only goal was to find a life and career like Goodall's; she is now in her fifth year of studying chimps in western Africa.
“I have always wanted to do what I am doing,” she says.
Wessling shared many of her experiences with the Vinton Lion's Club last week, and then spoke with Vinton Today about her life as a primate researcher.
After graduating from high school in Minnesota, Wessling earned her bachelor's in animal ecology with a wildlife option, and then her Master's in Biological Anthropology both from Iowa State University, where she worked with and earned the admiration of her advisor, Dr. Jill Pruetz, a renowned leader in the field of primate study.
Four years ago, Wessling accepted a fellowship offer from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany. She is working on her doctorate in Primatology/Evolutionary Anthropology. Her thesis will be titled, “Determinants of the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes versus) range limit and constraints in the West African savanna-woodland.
The chimps live in trees, but there are far fewer trees in the savanna than in the rain forests. The terrain and the climate – often with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees – are among the habitat factors affecting the chimpanzees.
Just how that climate impacts the chimps is the main focus of Wessling'sstudy. She has been observing the chimps, and collecting hair and urine samples. When she returns to the Institute in Germany in the near future, she will begin analzying those samples. She will be able to determine if chimps have nutritional deficiencies; the hormones in the urine samples will serve a indicators of what kind of stress the primates may be experiencing in that environment.
Already, Wessling's love of the animals and the lifestyle of a wilderness researcher has earned her respect among her peers and leaders.
“I could gush on and an about Erin, but I’ll limit myself to saying that she’s one of the best student scientists I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring,” said Dr. Pruetz. “I also believe that her research in Senegal will provide insight into the behavior and ecology of chimps living on the edge that we haven’t really had access to before – this is largely due to Erin’s commitment and perseverance. She is an incredible field worker, and she was able to collect data that most people thought would be impossible to obtain. I look forward to watching her continue her very successful trajectory in primatology, and I believe she will be a stand-out in our field one day.”
Watching wild chimps in their native environment requires living among them; for that reason, Wessling has spent several months in Senegal, where many researchers have for years followed the chimps of the area known as Fongoli. The savanna habitat is so different from that of the rain forest that researchers have observed behaviors significantly different from that of the jungle chimps. They have seen the chimps make spears for hunting, and even share those tools with others.
While the researchers keep a 10-meter perimeter between the humans and chimps, they are close enough to the primates for the chimps to be able to recognize them.
Missing Mike the chimp
Wessling recently posted on Facebook a photo of herself in Senegal, with a chimpanzee the researchers call Mike in the background. She labeled the photo “missing Mike,” whom she said is “a very charismatic chimp.”
Researchers also recall the time when Mike helped carry a baby chimp for an injured mother.
"Mike carried the infant we confiscated from poachers after we returned her to her mother," says Pruetz. "He was a sub-adult male at the time, and he carried the infant for the mother – who was injured and kept having to stop and set her baby down to rest during long stints of group travel – for two days following the baby’s return. The mother had been injured by hunters’ dogs during the capture of the infant."
Now, says Pruetz, Mike is an adult male and is moving his way up the hierarchy, but he still likes kids.
"It may be because he was orphaned at an older age himself and didn’t have younger siblings to play with. He will pick up and carry the youngest chimp in the group now, Louie, who is just over a year old," says Pruetz.
The researchers work closely with the villagers of the Fongoli area, and get the permission of village chiefs before entering an area. They build and live in huts among those villagers. The primitive huts have no running water or electricity. Some of the natives use bicycles or motorcycles for transportation, but many only travel on foot.
Wessling recently hired a mason to build her own hut there, on a two-acre parcel of land. She is eagerly looking forward to living there again. Because of her busy schedule, Wessling typically lives in those huts for two weeks at a time, then return to a nearby city, where there are the amenities and utilities familiar to Americans.
While other researchers generally focus on the chimps of Fongoli and therefore stay in Fongoli continuously, Wessling says she would only occasionally visit Kedougou (which means the "City with Amenities") and would rarely stay there.
While she misses her family when she is in Africa – her parents and siblings remain in Minnesota and both pairs of grandparents are in Iowa –Wessling also misses her research family now that she is back in the Midwest. Her advisor is Dr. Hjalmar Kühl, and her assistant, Jacques Tamba Keita, is now considered part of her beloved family of researchers.
Unlike many fellowships, the Planck Institute offers enough of a stipend so those who participate can spend all of their time researching – many fellowships require their participants to have part-time jobs to sustain themselves. Wessling has completed her third year there, and has received an extension for a fourth year, with a fifth year extension possible. She plans to finish her thesis in the next two years, and then hopes to continue her chimp research in Senegal.
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