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Elizabeth Lonsdorf

Primatologist

Emerging Explorer

Photo: Elizabeth Lonsdorf

Photograph by Matthew Heintz

Photo: Elizabeth Lonsdorf, primatologist

Photograph by Lincoln Park Zoo/Steve Thompson

In the 1960s Jane Goodall rocked the scientific world with the discovery that chimpanzees make and use tools—proof of the striking similarity between primates and humans. Now primatologist Elizabeth Vinson Lonsdorf is patiently extending Goodall's research into the next generation.

Lonsdorf is delving into the question of how young chimpanzees learn to termite—the practice of fashioning a piece of vegetation into a flexible wand and sticking it into a termite mound to extract a protein-rich meal.

Preliminary analysis suggests that young females may learn this technique faster than young males. In addition, females and males spend their "class time" at the termite mound differently and thus end up using different techniques when they reach adulthood, Lonsdorf says.

Summer internships during her undergraduate education at Duke University in North Carolina took Lonsdorf to Hawaii and Florida to study how whales and dolphins process information. Lonsdorf graduated from Duke in 1996 with degrees in biology and psychology.

At the Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies at the University of Minnesota, Lonsdorf launched into her study of chimpanzee behavior as a graduate student. "When I got the opportunity to work with chimps for grad school, I jumped at it," she said.

Lonsdorf received her doctorate in 2003 and is currently the director of field conservation at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. There she facilitates the zoo's involvement in animal conservation projects around the world.

Lonsdorf is prominently featured in the large-format film Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees. Comparisons to Goodall, however, make Lonsdorf uncomfortable.

"No one is the next Jane Goodall," Lonsdorf says. "No one can go out there and replicate what she did in the 1960s as a young woman out on her own in the forest. All we can do is continue to work on the path that she blazed."

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In Their Words

Each gender may be innately better at certain tasks, but that doesn't mean that they aren't capable of trying any task.

-Elizabeth Lonsdorf

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