Welcome back everyone! My guest on today’s show is Dr. Cat Hobaiter. Cat is a Lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, where she’s part of research unit called the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution. Cat spends a good chunk of her time, not in Scotland, however, but in Africa, where she conducts fieldwork on great apes. Her primary research site is in the Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda. Along with her team there, she studies the social behavior of wild chimpanzees—in particular, how they communicate with each other.
Much of our conversation centers on how chimps communicate through gesture—through bodily theatrics like stomping, drumming, clapping, somersaulting, and pirouetting. We discuss when chimps use these gestures, how they acquire them, and the thorny issue of what they mean. We also talk about how the gestures of chimpanzees compare to the gestures of other primates—including those bonobos, gorillas, and human toddlers. Cat and I do make our way over to other topics, too—we touch on some work she and her colleagues have done on the so-called “cooperative eye” hypothesis. We talk about the day-to-day of what it’s like to do fieldwork on great apes. And we talk about how the chimps at Budongo are faring in these pandemic times.
Not many of us get the opportunity to observe our closest primate cousins in the wild. I’ve certainly never been so lucky. But maybe the next best thing is to hear from someone who has—particularly someone like Cat who has spent more than a decade watching chimps closely, puzzling out their propensities, and generally just figuring out what they’re up to.
I learned a lot from this conversation—and had fun to boot. I think you will, too. So without any more preamble, here is my conversation with Dr. Cat Hobaiter!