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Sarah Dunphy-Lelii ’96 Showcases Chimpanzee Research

Studying chimpanzees in the wild, and not in captivity, helped Sarah learn more about how the chimps develop social hierarchies and greetings, and what their behaviors could reveal about human relationships.

Dr. Sarah Dunphy-Lelii spent her five-month sabbatical in the forests of Uganda studying chimpanzee behavior with the Ngogo Chimpanzee Project in Kibale National Park, east of the Rwenzori Mountains. The focus of her study was to watch the cough-like vocalizations used to greet higher-ranking animals within chimpanzee society.

Studying chimpanzees in the wild, and not in captivity, helped Sarah learn more about how the chimps develop social hierarchies and greetings, and what their behaviors could reveal about human relationships.

“In the wild, chimps are never still,” Sarah said. “They travel all day and have extremely rich lives.”

Observing chimp behavior and interactions, and navigating the mountainous terrain of an eleven-mile conservation area was no easy task. Sarah would locate and follow mothers with babies, listening for grunts, and note their social context to gather data.

“I would wait all day to encounter a female, so I could see if she greeted a male. And at the exact moment they met, she would walk behind a bush. Or the male would be distracted by an insect at the very moment they would ordinarily greet, or the infant would fall off his mother right then,” she said.

Sarah, chair of the psychology program at Bard College, currently teaches early childhood and animal cognition. She earned her BA with honors at Pennsylvania State University, interned at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, and worked in Daniel Povinelli’s Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana. She attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, where she earned her MA and PhD in developmental psychology. While there she had the opportunity to work with children to study their thinking, social, and problem-solving skills.

Sarah’s research in Uganda allowed her to combine her interests and expertise, and inspired her to revise her standard courses at Bard College and develop a new Upper College seminar on wild chimpanzee social cognitions, which she expects will attract students studying in a wide array of sciences.

Her research was made possible by a grant from the Bard Research Fund, and was also recognized in the Bard College publication the Bardian in an article titled “Into the Wild with Sarah Dunphy-Lelii.”

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