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Apes on the edge: assessing human impacts on the socioecology of critically-endangered western chimpanzees.

Project Description

Location: University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Project details

Growing human populations and related anthropogenic activities are increasing habitat destruction and fragmentation in tropical ecosystems, and resulting in higher levels of spatial overlap between humans and endangered wildlife. Cantanhez National Park (NP) in Guinea-Bissau is a biodiversity hotspot, but its remaining forest fragments are at risk of becoming further isolated as a matrix of agricultural plantations, roads, and human settlements continue to expand. Despite local tolerance towards sympatric wildlife including the critically-endangered western chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus), the impact of human disturbance on the behaviour and future survival of this, the most northwestern population of chimpanzees in Africa, is unknown. To answer fine-scale questions on the ways that chimpanzee individuals and groups respond to a human-impacted habitat and their future ability to persist in such environments you will conduct approximately 12 months of fieldwork in Cantanhez NP to collect behavioural data as well as non-invasive genetic samples for subsequent laboratory analysis.

Project Aims and Methods

Our aim is to evaluate current and build predictive models to evaluate the future impact of an increasingly human-impacted landscape on the socioecology of chimpanzee communities within Cantanhez NP. By integrating observational data (including direct observations where possible and camera trap footage) with non-invasive genetic analysis across four chimpanzee communities you will evaluate the current impact of anthropogenic disturbance and habitat isolation on chimpanzee community size, structure, dispersal and relatedness structure in the population. You will use GIS-informed spatial modelling to predict how increasing anthropogenic disturbance (i.e. under different scenarios of forest conversion for cultivation, and road expansion) might further impact chimpanzee communities in the future at both the demographic and genetic level. These data will inform the conservation management of chimpanzees within the NP including the protection of key habitat and migration corridors, and at a national level will demonstrate Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) planning and compliance.

You will be fully involved in project design and free to develop and integrate your own ideas to complement the wider ongoing research being conducted by team members.


Training opportunities at (1) the University of Exeter include courses in statistical modelling, including R, GIS, health and safety; (2) Cardiff University include a course in genetic data analysis. The Principal Supervisor will provide additional in-situ fieldwork training with the student.

Approximately 12 months fieldwork in Cantanhez NP, Guinea-Bissau.

Funding Notes

“NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2019 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £14,777 per annum for 2018-19.


Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend. Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.”


References / Background reading list

1. Bersacola E, Bessa J, Frazao-Moreira A, Sousa C, Hockings KJ (2018) Primate occurrence across a human-impacted landscape in Guinea-Bissau and neighbouring regions in West Africa: using a systematic literature review to highlight the next conservation steps. Peer J 6: e4847.
2. Hockings KJ, Sousa C (2013) Human-chimpanzee sympatry and interactions in Cantanhez National Park, Guinea-Bissau: current research and future directions. Primate Conserv 26: 57-65.
3. Hockings K J, McLennan MR, Carvalho, S, Ancrenaz M, Bobe R, Byrne R, Dunbar RIM, Matsuzawa, T, McGrew, WC, Williamson EA, Wilson M, Wood B, Wrangham R, and Hill, CM (2015) Apes in the Anthropocene: flexibility and survival. Trends Ecology Evol 30: 215-222.
4. McCarthy MS, Lester JD, Langergraber KE, Stanford CB, Vigilant L (2018) Genetic analysis suggests dispersal among chimpanzees in a fragmented forest landscape in Uganda. Am J Primatol e22902.
5. Minhos T, Nixon E, Sousa C, Vicente LM, Ferreira da Silva MJ, Sa R, Bruford MW (2013) Genetic evidence for spatio-temporal changes in the dispersal patterns of two sympatric African Colobine monkeys. Am J Phys Anthropol 150: 464-474.
6. Minhos T, Wallace E, Ferreira da Silva M, Sa RM, Carmo M, Barata A, Bruford MW (2013) DNA identification of primate bushmeat from urban markets in Guinea-Bissau and its implications for conservation. Biol Cons 167: 43-49.
7. Ferreira da Silva MJ, Godinho R, Casanova C, Minhos T, Sa R, Bruford MW (2014) Assessing the impact of hunting pressure on population structure of Guinea baboons (Papio papio) in Guinea-Bissau. Cons Genet 15: 1339-1355.
8. Minhos T, Chikhi L, Sousa C, Vicente LM, Ferreira Da Silva M, Heller R, Casanova C, Bruford MW (2016) Genetic consequences of human forest exploitation in two colobus monkeys in Guinea Bissau. Biol Cons 194: 194-208.

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