Chimpanzees are one of the most exciting animals to observe while on a safari or trek, and they can be spotted throughout Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda. These primates are our closest living relatives – we share roughly 98% of the same DNA! Humans and chimpanzees also share a common ancestor that lived millions of years ago. Much of what we know about the behavior and community structures of chimpanzees is thanks to primatologist Jane Goodall, who embarked on a long-term study of these primates in Gombe Stream National Park, located in western Tanzania. 

In 1960, Goodall set up a research station in the park to observe the Kasakela chimpanzee community. Unlike most scientific researches, she gave the chimpanzees names and slowly started to become accepted by their community, which gave her exclusive access to observe their behaviors. Throughout her study, Goodall found the chimpanzees to have individual personalities and observed that they were capable of emotions considered unique to humans, such as sadness and joy. Goodall witnessed chimpanzees making basic tools out of sticks and watched them fish for termites, which challenged two common beliefs in the scientific community: that only humans could use tools and that chimpanzees were vegetarians. 

Goodall also had an inside look at the social structures of chimpanzee communities. She discovered that chimpanzees have a highly complex social structure, which is led by an alpha male. Below the alpha male is a group of high-ranking males, followed by an alpha female and lower-ranking females. The relationships between these ranks are complex; they can be competitive, aggressive, altruistic, and friendly. Chimpanzees spend their lives trying to climb the social ladder or maintain their powerful position on top, all while exhibiting emotions and interacting with one another. Goodall’s immersive research experience dramatically transformed our understanding of these primates, and she created a new standard for conducting behavioral scientific studies.

In 1965, the Gombe Stream Research Center was established to support Goodall’s research and coordinate ongoing studies of chimpanzees throughout the park. The data collected at the center allows scientists to monitor current threats to chimpanzees, such as poaching, disease, and habitat disturbance. Visitors to the park can stop by the research center to learn more about Goodall’s ground-breaking research before heading out on a chimpanzee trek in the forest. Put your research skills to the test and see if you notice the chimpanzees exhibiting any of the behaviors first observed by Goodall, and get to know your closest living relative a little better!