David Pettifer

David Pettifer

David Pettifer is a PhD researcher and behavioural ecologist at the University of Birmingham, where he studies locomotion and musculoskeletial disease in geriatric chimps. He recently travelled to Uganda to carry out fieldwork, and you can hear all about his adventures in Episode 6 of Fieldwork Diaries. Read more about David in his bio below, find him on Twitter @David_Pettifer and Instagram @Pettiferd.

I would be lying if I said that I had always intended to study chimps, or even primates in general for that matter. In fact I would go as far as to say that I ended up doing this kind of research entirely by accident. My early years were spent mainly obsessing over dinosaurs, and proudly proclaiming that one day I would be a palaeontologist. This obsession, coupled with frequent trips to the zoo, a love of wildlife documentaries, and a fascination with the workings of natural selection led me to study Biology at The University of Manchester in 2010. I intentionally kept my degree programme broad so that I could acquire skills and knowledge from across the subject, studying everything from biodiversity to virology and everything in-between.

During my degree I had my first opportunity to experience tropical fieldwork. A field course to Ecuador took me into the cloud forests and tropical rainforests of South America. Studying the feeding behaviour of hummingbirds, and the impact of human land use on ant species diversity, I was fully immersed in an environment filled with animals I had only ever dreamed of seeing in real life. Whether it was the humpback whales I watched breaching off of the warm Pacific coastline, or the wasps that shared our hut, diligently building their intricate little nests, I in that moment knew that it was behaviour that I wanted to study, and how it evolved in context with its surroundings. Particularly I wanted to understand how ants, bees and wasps had evolved their complex societies.

In my final year I applied and woefully failed to get a PhD, and in all fairness I probably wasn’t ready at that stage of my career to take one on. Instead I went on to do a Masters of Research, and here I was given the opportunity to do two projects. The first I chose because it was looking at sociality in a species of social mice, sociality being the topic I was most interested in at the time. My second project was rather vaguely called computational primatology, and was actually my 4th choice out of 5. It turned out to be the much more interesting of the two, and would lead me directly onto my PhD. My research question was centred on why primates utilise a different type of gait from the majority of all other four legged animals. To test this I was given a computer model of a chimpanzee skeleton and muscles, and used an algorithm to let it evolve its own gait. This allowed me to see which gait it evolved most frequently, and as it turns out it wasn’t the chimp-like gait we would expect, but the lateral sequence gait that we see most commonly in other animals.

Combining this new-found interest in primate locomotion with my behavioural ecology background and my fieldwork experience, I was incredibly fortunate when a PhD covering all of those bases cropped up at the University of Birmingham. Now I study how locomotion changes as chimpanzees get older. Increasingly elderly populations of primates are becoming a welfare concern for zoos, but little is known about what becoming elderly actually means for a chimp in terms of physical health and wellbeing. I will look at how these processes occur in the wild and captivity, and try and use observations from the former to suggest how enclosure modifications can be made to improve conditions for the latter.

I’ve only just begun on my fieldwork adventures, so there will be plenty more stories and pictures (and hopefully data) to come, so please follow me on Twitter @David_Pettifer and Instagram @Pettiferd if you want to see what I’m getting up to and where my research takes me!

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