My research focuses on understanding the benefits of social play. I have conducted my field work observing infant chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. I am interested in understanding how social play is related to stress and developmental (immediate benefits); and how social play is related to dominance, stress and reproductive success (long-term benefits). Play is a fascinating, yet challenging, topic to study. While many of us will say that play is fun, there are not many empirical studies demonstrating the benefit of social play. Using behavioral and endocrine data collected from the field combined with a 35-year infant behavioral dataset, I am able to demonstrate that there is an association between play behavior and development. This means that play behavior is likely to influence motor and social development and has important implications from animal welfare to encouraging students to have access to recess.
A typical day in the field would consist of waking up at 6am to walk to where the chimpanzee had nested on the previous night and arrive before they work up. I then recorded behavioral and distance data of the mother, infant and next oldest sibling every minute from the time they woke up until the time they went to sleep. This gave me a great understanding of how the chimpanzees spent their time and who they interacted with. I would also opportunistically collect fecal samples from chimpanzees to measure stress hormones. Not surprisingly, infant chimpanzees engage in play behavior very similar to humans. Infants will wrestle, tickle each other and even play games of keep-away. I have collected a great amount of stories from my time in the field. While in Gombe, I contributed blogs for Lincoln Park Zoo with highlights and pictures from my adventures.
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