The Influence of Burned Landscapes on Wild Chimpanzee Behaviour and Forest Ecology

This project is available from the academic year 2025/26 onwards.

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Alexander Piel

Anthropology, UCL

Alexander Piel's Profile Picture

Project Description:

Most of Tanzania’s chimpanzees live outside of national parks, distributed across a woodland-dominated landscape that comprises village and district lands. Human-ignited fires pervade the landscape, burning nearly 75% of the ecosystem and although miombo woodlands and the wildlife they host are to some extent fire-adapted, it remains unclear what effect the burned landscapes have on chimpanzees. For example, burned areas simultaneously expose ambush predators (leopards), and clear impediments for coursing predators (wild dogs), which are both potential chimpanzee predators. Moreover, they expose potential prey for chimpanzees, such as cached juvenile antelope. The proposed study will assess the impact that annual burning has on chimpanzee behaviour, critical habitat, and forest regeneration. By conducting behavioural observations, the candidate will test the influences of fires and resulting charred landscapes on chimpanzee grouping and travel patterns, group composition, and vigilance behaviour. Moreover, the candidate will quantify the impact of fires on the density, diversity, and distribution of key chimpanzee food sources. NERC-DTD support will pair a UK-based PhD student with a Tanzanian Msc student (funding already secured) who will conduct surveys of near-by villages on burning patterns. This coupling of understanding human motivations with consequences for wildlife stands to generate support from government across sectors. Finally, there is considerable paleo-anthropological interest in how hominins responded to burned landscapes, yet no clear way to test these hypotheses using the fossil record. Observations of extant chimpanzees in potentially similar burned landscapes to Plio-Pleistocene habitat will allow us to generate hypotheses about evolutionary pressures on hominins.

Policy Impact of Research:

Currently, there is no coordinated action on fire management. With our results, we will be able to demonstrate the effect of fires on vegetation and make recommendations for early-burning in specific, high priority areas for chimpanzees.

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