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Today we know that humans and chimpanzees share 99% of their DNA and that we have a lot in common. Not just how we look, but how we behave, form groups, defend our turf, and love each other. People didn't always see other primates this way, but in the 1960s and '70s, some amazing intrepid women came along to turn primatology on its hairy head. Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas studied chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, respectively, and are the very definition of great minds of science. Their contributions to humanity's knowledge about its closest living relatives is the subject of today's SciShow: Great Minds.

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Today we know that humans and chimps share 99% of their DNA and that we have a lot in common. Not just how we look, but how we behave, form groups, defend our turf, and love each other. But people didn't always see other primates this way. For a long time the world had a very King-Kongy view of them like they were all testosterone-crazed angry apes. But, in the 1960s and '70s some amazing intrepid women came along and turned primatology on its hairy head.

Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and BirutÄ— Galdikas are the definition of awesome. Their studies on chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans respectively are some of the longest on-going research of wild animal populations ever. They fought hard for conservation and habitat preservation, and together they redefined the relationship between humans and primates.

 Jane Goodall (00:56)

Jane Goodall was born in London in 1934 and from a young age she professed an intense interest in animals. While other little girls were brushing dolls and staging tea parties, Goodall was reading Tarzan and Doctor Doolittle and sneaking into chicken coops to see where eggs came from. She dreamed of some day living among wild animals and was lucky to have an awesome mom who encouraged these pursuits in a time when few ladies were involved in science. When she was 23, Goodall joined a friend on a trip to Africa and there she met the famous paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey and his wife Mary.

At the time the Leakey's were pioneering the study of human origins, strongly supporting Darwin's assertion that human evolution began in Africa and believing that the more we looked at the past, the more we could learn about our connection to primates. But little was known about wild ape behavior at the time. Louis Leakey was impressed by Goodall's enthusiasm and energy, so he took her on as an assistant and asked her to spearhead a new study on chimpanzees in Tanzania.

In the summer of 1960, she arrived at the study site in Gombe. It took a while for the shy chimps to get used to her, but soon enough Goodall was blowing minds with her discoveries. Like that chimps eat meat. At that time everybody thought that chimpanzees were vegetarians until one day she saw a chimp munching on a baby bush pig and sharing it with his lady friend.

A few weeks later, Goodall observed something that was truly revolutionary. She watched two chimps strip leaves off of stems and jam the stems into a termite nest, pull them out, and lick up the tasty termite treat. This meant not only were primates using tools, but they were essentially making them as well.

Until then, anthropologists had defined humanity by its ability to make tools. So when Goodall called up Leakey and was like, 'You're not gonna believe this,' Leakey famously responded, "Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept that chimpanzees are humans." In other words, this was a really, really big deal.

In 1964 Goodall married wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, who also happened to be a Dutch baron. And if you needed another reason to love her, they nick-named their son 'Grub'.

Around that time, Leakey pulled some strings and got her enrolled at Cambridge to get her PhD, despite the fact that she did not have a university degree. Some of the stuffy tweed-suited fellows gave her a hard time, especially for naming her subjects things like, "David", "Grey Beard", "Fifi", and "Goliath". But Goodall believed that the emotions, complexities, and personalities she saw in these chimps warranted more than just a number.

It turns out, the world agreed, and became so captivated by what they saw through Goodall's eyes, that some years later, when a chimp named Flo died, the London Times ran an obituary.

In 1965, Goodall co-founded the Gombe Stream Research Center, which is still running today. Eventually, she and van Lawick divorced, and in 1976 she married Derek Bryceson, the director of Tanzania's national parks, and a member of its parliament. Because of his leadership role, Bryceson was able to help protect the Gombe Preserve until his death in 1980.

Basically, Goodall and her colleagues blew the lid off primatology. They saw behavior that no one had documented before -- cooperation, altruism, sorrow, joy, cruelty -- and paved the way for primatologists, like Dian Fossey.

 Dian Fossey (04:01)

While Goodall was getting established at Gombe, Dian Fossey was spending her life's savings trying to get to Africa. Born in San Francisco in 1932, Fossey had a much different childhood than Goodall. Alienated by her parents, she grew up as a loner, turning to animals -- be they goldfish or horses -- for love and acceptance.

Her family wouldn't support her pursuit of a career in biology, so she eventually received a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy, and moved to Kentucky to work at a children's hospital. For the next ten years, Fossey worked as a therapist with sick children, and lived on a farm, tending to livestock in her free time.

Though she loved living on the farm and working with children, it wasn't enough for her, and in 1963 Fossey borrowed a year's salary worth of funds and booked a seven-week African trip. That was where she first met the Leakeys, and where she reportedly broke her ankle at their camp and puked on some fossils.

On the last stop of her trip she followed a tracker into the Ugandan jungle, and saw a band of elusive Mountain Gorillas for the first time, and she was hooked.

Fossey returned home, paid off her debts, published some articles in the local paper about her trip, and bided her time. When Leakey came to give a lecture, Fossey tracked him down and was surprised to find that he remembered her. Probably because of the busted ankle and all the ralphing. Still, he saw in Fossey something like what he'd seen in Goodall, and though she had little expertise, he asked her if she wanted to come help study gorillas. But he told her she had to have her appendix removed first as a precaution, telling her tales of people who had died horrible deaths of appendicitis in the bush. So she had the surgery, only to be told later that Leakey suggested this mostly to gauge her determination.

Ha. Well... that's a good one, Louis. Yeah. 

So in 1967, at age 35, Fossey headed to her field site in Rwanda. Soon, she founded the Karisoke Research Center, and was sleeping in a tiny tent, eating canned food and spying on gorillas. Like Goodall, she initially had a hard time getting close to her subjects. Then, she started imitating their scratches and grunts, chewing celery, knuckle walking, and acting like a submissive, hairless, albino ape. Living the dream.

Once these animals were used to her presence, she could start to really observe them, identifying individuals by their distinct nose prints, a practice famous biologist George Schaller instituted a few years prior in his pilot gorilla study.

Much like Goodall, Fossey worried that she wouldn't be taken seriously until she had the proper credentials, and she eventually earned her PhD from Cambridge under Goodall's same adviser. During it all she led a disastrous personal life, littered with affairs, hard drinking, pistol packing, and chain smoking. If nothing else, the woman was passionate.

Back at Karisoke, her focus shifted from research, to protection against poaching. Gorillas were often caught and killed in snares intended for other animals. Sometimes poachers kidnapped babies for the exotic pet trade, and because adults will defend their families to the death, the resulting carnage was often brutal. Gorilla heads, hands, and feet were even sold as grotesque trophies, including as ashtrays.

Th locals started calling Fossey, "the woman who lives alone on a mountain." The name was fitting in more than one way. Fossey had always been outspoken about poaching, but in 1977 things got personal when her favorite gorilla, "Digit" -- with whom she'd shared a close bond for ten years-- was killed and decapitated by poachers while trying to protect his family. Fossey declared war.

She set up the Digit Fund to raise money for what she called her "Active" conservation programs, but soon took matters into her own hands, destroying snares, and intimidating, attacking, and arresting some poachers, allegedly holding cattle for ransom, even burning down hunting camps. She also opposed revenue generating tourism because she'd seen gorillas die from diseases transmitted by humans. Needless to say, she didn't make a lot of local friends. Fossey saw herself as a warrior protecting her family, and whether you see this as admirable or misguided, she was fearless, and it eventually killed her.

In 1985, just after Christmas, Fossey was brutally murdered by machete in her cabin. There are many theories surrounding her murder, but the case was never entirely solved.

Her last journal entry read, "When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future."

She is buried at Karisoke, next to Digit.

 BirutÄ— Galdikas (08:08)

Like Goodall and Fossey, BirutÄ— Galdikas loved animals from a young age. As a girl snuck around in the woods, quietly observing wild animals doing their thing.

Particularly curious about human evolution and the great apes, she studied biology and psychology in college. By 22, she was working on a masters in anthropology at UCLA, when who should stroll in, but who should stroll into her life but -- you guessed it -- Louis Leakey.

With some solid street cred and admiration for Goodall and Fossey, the ginger-haired Galdikas convinced Leakey to help her get a study going on ginger-haired orangutans in Indonesian Borneo. Friends, professors, and haters at large told her that it couldn't be done; that orangutans were too solitary, too elusive; and that they lived in nasty swamps and jungles too thick to walk through; and that the isolation would drive her insane.

They didn't appreciate what can happen when you tell a really determined person not to do something: they'll prove you wrong, very wrong. Since arriving --and I'm sorry if I pronounce this wrong-- at Tanjung Puting reserve in Borneo, Galdikas and her colleagues have made over 100,000 hours of orangutan observations. Yes, often while bleeding in thorn bushes and waist-deep in stinky leech-infested swamps.

She has conducted one of the longest continuous studies of a wild animal population by a principal investigator in the world. She has also co-founded Orangutan Foundation International, and helped raise countless orphan orangs. She even made the heart-wrenching decision to send her three-year-old son Binte to live with her father back in civilization because the kid's only friends were young apes, and he was starting to identify as an orangutan.

Galdikas was the first person to document orangutans' tremendously long birth cycle, so we now know that females typically have offspring only once every 8 years, and that the babies stay with their mothers for those 8 years, making the species extremely sensitive to extinction. She discovered that orangutans sleep in tree nests, sometimes 30 meters up; eat over 400 different kinds of food; and often drape large leaves over their backs like ponchos in a rain storm.

She also helped establish the concept that non-human animals can have culture too. By observing over two dozen behaviors present in some orang populations and not in others, indicating these behaviors were passed down and learned through generations.

Galdikas still spends much of her time at the reserve with her husband, Borneo native Pak Bohap. She is the only Non-Indonesian recipient of that country's highest honor for environmental leadership.

 Closing Remarks (10:24)

In the end, what Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas did was hold a fuzzy ape-y mirror up to humanity. They showed us that we are not as special as we once thought, and that many of our behaviors are not uniquely human. Our primate relatives are complex, they are capable of cooperation, and cruelty, of sorrow; happiness, altruism, and observation, just like humans.

These people followed their hearts. They thrived in some of the most remote, difficult, and dangerous wild places in the world, they never gave up, they brought something new and vital to the field, asked different questions, offered new perspectives. Primatology has a far greater representation of women than many other sciences, largely because of these women. They helped pave the way for new generations of biologists and conservationists.

Sadly, in spite of their considerable efforts, all of the animals they've studied are critically endangered. Their habitats are dwindling, and extinction in the wild is a very real threat.

The image in the mirror isn't always pretty.

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