Chimpanzees, Habitat Fragmentation, and Gut Biomes with Natasha Coutts (#23)

We talk about habitat fragmentation, developing a chimpanzee superhighway, and how empowering girls can lead to better economic, social, and ecological outcomes.

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Natasha Coutts is a doctoral candidate with the School of Human Sciences at The University of Western Australia (UWA), a postgraduate fellow with UWA’s Africa Research & Engagement Centre, and a research affiliate of the Center of Excellence in Biology and Natural Resource Management at the University of Rwanda. Her research takes a multidisciplinary approach to understanding how habitat fragmentation can affect the gut microbiome of eastern chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) throughout Rwanda by drawing on methods and knowledge from fields such as socioecology, conservation biology, microbiology, population genetics, and bioinformatics. Her project includes two habituated and one semi-habituated chimpanzee communities:  one in an undisturbed, continuous habitat and two in small, degraded forest fragments. These field sites represent all locations in Rwanda where chimpanzees currently remain, thereby providing a country-wide perspective on the processes under investigation.

From 2018 - 2019 Natasha  was in the field collecting dietary and social data in conjunction with faecal samples and habitat surveys to allow her to identify not only the composition of the chimpanzee’s gut microbial communities, but also the potential mechanisms by which habitat fragmentation can act upon it. With more and more evidence linking the gut microbiome to health, this research is an important piece of the puzzle in understanding how changes in habitat can influence the long-term health and viability of endangered chimp populations. Ultimately she hopes her work will make a meaningful contribution to the conservation of chimpanzees by informing management decisions that promote preserving intact habitats and reconnecting isolated fragments.

Natasha holds a Bachelor of Biological Science (Advanced) from La Trobe University and a Bachelor of Science with First Class Honours in Anatomy & Human Biology from UWA.

In addition to her PhD research, Natasha is also the Africa Programs & Conservation Campaigns Manager with the Jane Goodall Institute Australia. In this role she oversees the administration and implementation of the projects JGIA supports including The Girls Empowerment Project in Uganda, Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, and Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in Republic of Congo.

In our conversation, we talk about habitat fragmentation, developing a chimpanzee superhighway, and how empowering girls can lead to better economic, social, and ecological outcomes.

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Topics/Resources/People Mentioned

Additional Resources

  • Chimps could hold key to good gut health (UWA News)
  • Endangered chimpanzee conservation: saving our closest cousins (Chuffed)

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Jane Goodall Institute Australia - Africa Programs

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