With great sadness, I write about the passing away of Japanese primatologist, Professor Toshisada Nishida. Nishida studied chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) and was considered the leading scholar on the Tanzanian chimpanzees in the Mahale mountains. While he was known for his work on chimpanzees, he was also known for his work on studying Japanese macaques, red colobus monkeys, and bonobos.
Nishida was one of the trailblazers of Japanese primatology. In addition to having the second longest running field site at Mahale, he was known for being the first Japanese primatologist to be published in a western journal (Nishida 1973), and authoring the first Japanese primatological research report in a non-Japanese primatology journal (Nishida 1976). Furthermore, he is credited with training an entire generation of Japanese primatologists (Mitani, McGrew, & Wrangham 2006).
In tribute to Nishida’s lifelong pioneering work, John Mitani, William McGrew, and Richard Wrangham (2006) wrote a beautiful article detailing Nishida’s contributions to primatology. In it, they mention the importance of his work for establishing quantitative analysis for primatology, clarifying social structures of chimpanzees, and during a period of time when it was believed that chimpanzees were largely nomadic with a lack of boundaries defined by communities, he provided data and support to constitute that chimpanzees lived in very specific social groups with variations in party size and composition, and with female members transferring between these groups. All of these findings have helped not only determine behavioral ecology of chimpanzees, but also provide a potential framework for early human ancestors.
Through Nishida’s research, we have learned a significant amount of information about chimpanzee social behavior and characteristics which may explain some human behaviors. For example, in an anecdotal report, an adult male chimpanzee with morbidity symptoms similar to influenza was found using a stick to encourage sneezing and clear his blocked nasal passage (Nishida and Nakamura 1993). Even though anecdotal, Nishida & Nakamura were able to contribute to the addition of further evidence corroborating the advanced cognitive abilities of wild chimpanzees.
In another example, “leaf-clipping displays,” as Nishida wrote, were usually communication signals given by adult males to estrous females in a possessive manner, adolescent males to estrous females as a courtship behavior (or, conversely, estrous females might offer these leaf-clippings to adolescent males for copulations), or even to human observers for sharing food (Nishida 1980). To most, this probably means nothing–however, I would argue, don’t humans have behaviors like this? For example, it’s common on first dates for individuals to give flowers as a form of courtship, no? While I wouldn’t argue that example is an evolutionary behavioral characteristic, it is something shared between chimpanzees and humans and gives further reason to give empathy towards our evolutionary ancestors.
After all, a large part of Nishida’s ambition was dedicated to his desire to teach others about the value and wonders of nature. Given the nature of his work and the impact of his contributions to primatology, I believe his work and his proteges will continue to contribute to teaching others of the appreciation of nature and wildlife and the inherent value both possess. While I was never able to meet him in person, I find his work to be inspiring and him as one of the greatest figures of international primatology.
Mitani JC, McGrew WC, & Wrangham R (2006). Toshisada Nishida’s contributions to primatology. Primates; journal of primatology, 47 (1), 2-5 PMID: 16132169
NISHIDA, T. (1973). The ant-gathering behaviour by the use of tools among wild chimpanzees of the Mahali Mountains Journal of Human Evolution, 2 (5), 357-370 DOI: 10.1016/0047-2484(73)90016-X
Nishida, T. (1976). The Bark-Eating Habits in Primates, with Special Reference to Their Status in the Diet of Wild Chimpanzees Folia Primatologica, 25 (4), 277-287 DOI: 10.1159/000155720
Nishida, T. (1980). The leaf-clipping display: A newly-discovered expressive gesture in wild chimpanzees. Journal of Human Evolution, 9(2): 117-128.
Nishida, T. & Nakamura, M. (1993). Chimpanzee tool use to clear a blocked nasal passage. Folia primatologica, 61(4): 218-220.