Aaron Sandel

Evolutionary Anthropologist

Young Explorers Grantee

Picture of Aaron Sandel with an ape

Photograph by Nathan Chesterman

Picture of Aaron Sandel

Photograph by Rachna Reddy

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

As long as I can remember, I've loved animals. The first movie I ever saw was National Geographic's Creatures of the Namib. The second was National Geographic's Tropical Rain Forest. At first I imagined myself running through the savanna with big cats. It wasn't until I was five years old that I realized I wanted to study wild gorillas. For the next decade, I blew out my birthday candles wishing that I would find myself in the forests of equatorial Africa studying gorillas. Now, over 20 years later, I am in such a forest, but studying chimpanzees. Not exactly my childhood dream, but close enough.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I got my first chance to study ape behavior in high school, watching the gorillas at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. In college, I began conducting experiments testing primate cognition, mostly with captive lemurs (not apes, but primates nonetheless). Then, in 2009, I spent my first time with wild apes: a summer with the Kanyawara chimpanzees that live in the northwest of Kibale National Park, Uganda. That confirmed my interest in chimps and helped me get to where I am today: conducting my Ph.D. research on the Ngogo chimpanzees in the center of Kibale National Park.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to evolutionary anthropology?

I want to understand what it means to be human, and one of the best ways to do that is to study one of our closest living relatives, chimpanzees. Why do humans think and feel and act the way that we do? Also, chimpanzees, and many other primates, are endangered and their habitats are being destroyed. This motivates me to work in the forests of Uganda so that I can aid in conservation efforts.

What's a normal day like for you?

I head out to the forest around 7 a.m. in search of chimps. Unlike most primates, chimpanzees are never all together all the time. Instead, they live in "fission-fusion" communities in which they split into subgroups or cliques (which we call "parties") throughout the day. As soon as I find chimps, I follow an adolescent or young adult for an hour. Then I switch to another young male, and I fission and fuse along with them. As a result, I never know who I will find, where I will go, or what I will do. Sometimes I am stuck under a large fig tree, craning my neck to observe a single furry dot above me and cursing the forest spirits. Other times I am on an adventure through thorns and swamps at the edge of the territory, avoiding elephants and chasing after chimps as they patrol their borders or hunt for monkeys. I return to our research camp by 6 or 7 p.m.

Do you have a hero?

My lifelong hero is my stuffed animal gorilla that I got when I was five years old and named Chi-chi. He inspired me to become a primatologist, and continues to provide moral support (even when he was in a box in my parents' attic). Another hero is Little Joe, a western lowland gorilla from the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. When he and I were adolescents, he escaped from the zoo, although he was safely captured and returned. He taught me the importance of following your dreams against all odds, but also accepting certain important limitations and learning to live with them.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

Some of my favorite moments in the field are the quiet times when I get to observe intimate interactions between chimps: an adolescent male grooming his infant sister, or two adult males throwing off their tough facades and playing with each other. It is also exhilarating when the Ngogo chimpanzees meet the rival chimpanzee communities at the borderlands of their territory. On one occasion, the Ngogo chimps heard the neighboring group at 6:30 p.m., and went on a silent patrol into enemy territory. They walked in a single-file line until after sunset, when they finally gave up. The only light was from the fireflies until the other researcher and I turned on our headlamps and began the long walk back home, at our research camp past 9 p.m.

The most challenging moments are when I lose sight of a chimp in the midst of collecting data. Sometimes they are completely out of sight in a tree, or worse, they have escaped altogether. Some chimpanzees are very hard to find and follow, and when they lose me, I often feel like crying (and sometimes I do cry!). But after a year in the forest, I have developed more patience and I try to remain Zen. After all, it is just a part of fieldwork.

What are your other passions?

When I'm not thinking about primates or evolutionary anthropology, I like to draw satirical or gag cartoons and I do stand-up comedy about once a year. And I daydream about making documentaries and films, like the story of a pubescent boy who enters a whistling competition to pay for school but then finds out he has tongue cancer; with the threat of losing his tongue and his ability to talk, he must find his true voice. I also like to cook vegan food.

Sandel's Twitter

In Their Words

I want to understand what it means to be human, and one of the best ways to do that is to study one of our closest living relatives.

—Aaron Sandel

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