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Chimpanzee research could lead to a good night's sleep

21:04 19/08/2018
Research conducted by Antwerp Zoo’s Research and Conservation department has documented the sleep patterns of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, and found that they are remarkably like our own

Research at Antwerp Zoo’s Centre for Research and Conservation (CRC) on the sleeping behaviour of chimpanzees confirms again that they are “humans’ closest living relatives”. The conclusions can help this endangered species to survive in areas also populated by people, but can also contribute to sleep wellness in humans.

Scientist Nikki Tagg, a British expat, is head of the team that analysed night-time images of chimpanzees in Cameroon. They came to the conclusion that chimpanzees have quite a similar sleeping pattern to ours: One long sleep between dusk and dawn.

They are, however, more flexible and alert in their sleep, reacting to external factors like extreme temperatures and human activity nearby. The research marks the first time that the night-time activity of chimps has been so extensively investigated.

The discoveries can help improve conservation planning techniques, so the endangered species can be more efficiently protected. “But it can also provide better insights into the human sleep disorders,” explains Tagg, “as it sheds light on the early roots and evolution of our sleeping behaviour.”

Vulnerable cousins

Tagg, originally from England, answered the call of Africa early on in her career – driven by a desire to protect our vulnerable cousins. After stints in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Gabon, she joined the Antwerp Zoo’s Projet Grands Singes (PGS) in Cameroon. Since 2013, she has been based in Antwerp and co-ordinates the conservation project for great apes from there.

The PGS research camp is situated in Eastern Cameroon in a zone near the Dja Biosphere Reserve, where chimps and other great apes live together with the inhabitants of small villages. “The minority of the remaining chimpanzee population in the world is protected in reserves,” says Tagg. “We have to figure out how people and apes can live together peacefully in the other areas.”

It is estimated that there are still globally about 350,000 chimps living in the wild. The species is threatened by hunting, deforestation, human population growth, climate change and diseases.

For the locals, great apes often are considered a welcome source of meat. And money. “One of our tasks is to raise awareness about the fact that they are endangered and to make sure the law is applied by the local authorities,” says Tagg. “But we also help locals with alternative sources of income, like cocoa bean, pig or fish farming.”

Such projects have seen successes, but it’s an uphill battle. Almost 60 years after the renowned British anthropologist Jane Goodall started her iconic research into the behaviour of chimpanzees in Tanzania, the situation of the species looks more grim than ever.

“Many campaigns are organised and a lot of funding has been raised, but we see in practice that the pressure on great apes is increasing everywhere,” says Tagg. “The forest is more exploited, more firearms are being used against the apes, and the law is often not applied as it should be because of, for instance, corruption.”

Basic right to protection

To convince local populations of the value of great apes, the researchers point out their role in ensuring the health of the eco-system in which they all live. “As big mammals, they swallow large seeds and disperse them further on, thus contributing to the sustainability of the forest,” explains Tagg. One of the PGS’s missions is to monitor the changes in the forest, in order to provide data to support this argument.

Chimpanzees in particular have a special status as the closest living relatives to humans and provide a crucial link to our origins. “But to be clear, it’s absolutely a basic right of any species to deserve protection,” emphasises Tagg.

PGS is one of three conservation projects concentrating on threatened ape species that is co-ordinated by Antwerp Zoo’s CRC institute. The Lui Kotale Bonobo Project serves to safeguard the bonobo population, a great ape species, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The BioBrasil project focuses on golden-headed lion tamarins, a species of monkey, in Brazil.

Photo courtesy Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Written by Andy Furniere (Flanders Today)