Monday, February 8, 2016

Why We Name Chimps

One of the unique aspects of volunteering on Chimp & See is the ability to give names to the chimpanzees that we discover in the camera trap footage.  Naming primates in research is common, though it hasn't always been.  Jane Goodall disrupted convention when she gave names to the chimps she studied in Gombe, rather than just numbers.  But she knew, as we have all come to know, that each of these animals is an individual, with unique personalities and life stories that must be acknowledged in order to understand them.

In some research organizations, however, naming is still frowned upon, based on the idea that anthropomorphizing subjects can lead to misinterpretation of behaviors, or other biases. On the other hand, animal researchers who name their subjects are able to form closer bonds with them, which results in better care, just as we see with pets (or cars, or boats!).

Since we're trying to identify individuals at C&S, keeping track of which chimp is RWMale03 or RWMale23 can get cumbersome.  So giving a chimp a memorable name is helpful for discussing matches, if nothing else.  As for bias, our sharp citizen scientists don't let naming influence their judgment.  For example, there is the case of Maggie-Ollie, previously thought to be 2 individuals, Maggie & Ollie.  We've also encountered chimps where we initially believed the gender to be male (Charles) or female (Sherri), but closer inspection revealed the opposite.  In all cases, the name choices didn't introduce assumptions that prevented our volunteers from continuing their objective evaluation.

Chimps "Mario" and "Luigi" from the Crimson Dew site
Character images displayed as fair use for educational/research purposes

As mentioned in a previous post ("Chimps as individuals"), volunteers have named well over 100 chimps so far!  We've seen a few different methods for choosing names:

  • Some chimps are named based on a physical trait, such as Belle (a chimp with an especially "pretty" face) and Roux (French for red, to honor this red-haired lady), or a personality trait, such as King (a large older male who seemed respected in his group) and Abile (as in "clever," for a juvenile who was adept with tools).
  • Others are named after real people or fictional characters, like Mario and Luigi (of video game fame), Greg (after TV character Greg House, for a chimp with an injured leg), and Christine (the name of one volunteer's wife) and Teddy (named after a volunteer's son).
  • Finally, some volunteers opt for unconventional names with deeper meaning, for example, Ajali (meaning "chance" in Swahili), Deka (meaning "pleasing"), and Selve (meaning "forest" in French).  These types of names are especially safe bets when the gender isn't certain!

Regardless of how the names are chosen, they always seem to be a good fit!  Plus, it's fun, and a bit of a honor for both the namer and namee!  So much so that the practice has spread to other memorable animals we identify, such as Buster the one-tusked warthog (left tusk), Leroy - the other one-tusked warthog, (right tusk), Molco the green monkey with the broken tail, Rozalie the one-horned Jentink's duiker, and others.

See all our unique chimp (and other animals') names here.  Then, head over to the discussion boards and jump in on the matching process. What do you think would be a good name for a chimp?  If you can help us identify a new one, your name may be chosen for them!

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