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Zeke is fascinated by other primates his own age.
Zeke is fascinated by other primates his own age. Photo: Scott Kissell
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Do you know bonobos?

One student spends her summer studying their behavior

written by Tracy Chappelow, university marketing & creative services

Mary Kate Findley

Mary Kate Findley

By Mary Kate Findley’s observations, Zeke is a typical 4-year-old. He’s full of energy, literally bouncing off the walls, teasing an older male, Vim, then rushing back to his mother, Kimia, for reassurance.

Zeke also hangs upside down from man-made vines, grasping them with his feet. And that’s typical, too — for a bonobo.

Findley, a zoology major at Miami, is spending her summer studying bonobo behavior at the Cincinnati Zoo. But she isn’t looking for typical activity in these members of the ape family. She only records instances of hair-plucking, an action that may indicate stress.

At regular intervals, she jots the bonobo family’s grooming activities on a chart. When she sees hair-plucking, she notes whether it’s self-inflicted or done to another bonobo, its duration, and the method.

“We’re trying to figure out what triggers stress for the bonobos and what we can do to change this,” Findley said. “Our goal is to better manage their captivity and help them to stay healthy and happy.”

Their survival depends on it.

In the wild, bonobos are found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an area that’s now unsafe for researchers because of political instability. The Congo is also unsafe for its population of apes — bonobos, chimps and gorillas. These primates are killed for their meat and are victims of the overall violence in the region.

In the U.S., a third of this endangered species’ population is housed in Ohio at either the Cincinnati Zoo or the Columbus Zoo. Findley compares behaviors between the two zoos’ bonobo populations.

Her involvement with zoos began at age 13, when she and her twin sister, Susan, began volunteering at the Cincinnati Zoo. They now teach in the zoo’s education program, introducing grade-school children to exotic creatures such as the three-banded armadillo.

“Animal behavior has always been an interest of mine. I’ve taken a plethora of biological anthropology classes because they complement my zoology major and go deeper into the topics of evolution and primatology,” Findley said.

After a primate behavior class with Linda Marchant, professor of anthropology, Findley asked her advice about conducting primate research. Marchant, an internationally recognized expert in this field, suggested that Findley apply to Miami’s Undergraduate Summer Scholars program.

Through the program, she received a stipend that allowed her to focus on research for the summer. Marchant became her supervising professor.

“One thing I love about doing observational research is taking the empirical data as it happens. I learn something new about the bonobos each day. They still manage to surprise me and challenge me as a researcher. Research has been so interesting and engaging, and I hope to see all that the field of research has to offer,”Findley concluded.

Undergraduate Summer Scholars program

More than 100 Miami students participate in research or creative projects each year through the Undergraduate Summer Scholars program.

Each scholar receives six hours of academic credit with tuition waived, a $2,600 fellowship, a $400 project allowance and the opportunity to pursue in-depth research one-on-one with a faculty mentor.

Administered by the office for the advancement of research and scholarship, the program is open to any student in any major who has completed his or her sophomore or junior year.

A mother bonobo with her baby bonobo


The zoo’s two bonobo family groups have an indoor and outdoor area. The families alternate between the two environments.
Mother bonobo grooms a baby bonobo


Lisa, 33, grooms her youngest offspring, 7-month-old Belle.
A mother, father, and baby bonobo all take a nap


Belle’s son, 13-year-old Vic, joins the group for some quality family time.
Mary Kate talks with visitors at the zoo


Mary Kate explains to zoo visitors that bonobos are NOT monkeys, they’re apes.
Mary Kate holds a pad of paper while talking with Linda Marchant


As Mary Kate’s USS mentor, Professor Linda Marchant meets with her weekly at the zoo.
A zoo educator holds an armadillo


In the zoo’s education program, Susan Finley, Mary Kate’s twin, shows how a three-banded armadillo tucks itself into a protective ball. Susan is also a Miami zoology major.
An educator holds an armadillo while children pet it


The zoo’s education programs give children an appreciation for the world’s animals and their conservation.
A student zoo educator holds a python while children pet it


Zoology major Taylor Pittard introduces visitors to Disco, a 13-year-old ball python. He’s one of 11 Miami undergraduates interning at the zoo. 
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