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Wrap-Up: Leaving The Virunga Mountains

All our bags are packed, we're ready to go. I'm standin' here outside the door of the airplane lavatory — with a complimentary vomit bag in hand because food poisoning is full of surprises. The others are somewhere over Kenya on a puddle jumper of a plane, heading to Amboseli National Park. They'll stay for a week before returning to Rwanda to wrap up and put things in order for next year.

That's the thing about a long-term project: It's, well, long-term. The Virunga Mountains' gorillas haven't drunk from the fountain of youth. They will continue to pass away, be it from old age, disease or injury. The gorilla-monitoring organizations will continue burying them, though now according to protocols worked out by Dr. Shannon McFarlin (a project co-leader from George Washington University), the national parks authority and gorilla vets. And for an untold period of years, those researchers will return each summer to exhume the gorillas that passed in the intervening time, adding to the skeletal collection.

There are some big changes on the horizon. The point of creating the skeletal collection is to conduct research on gorilla health and development, conservation, and to test what scientists think they're seeing etched in bones and teeth against behavioral and veterinary records — to see whether what's written in the bone can be connected to events during the animal's life.

Shannon is eager to move over to the research side of things. With Dr. Mudakikwa and Dr. Tim Bromage (the third project co-leader from New York University College of Dentistry), she will use the microscopic anatomy in bones and teeth to investigate mountain gorillas' growth patterns. They also want to determine the impacts of outside influences, like disease and stress, on gorilla health and development. Right now researchers aren't entirely sure how they affect gorillas, but give them a year or so and this team will be on its way.

And as the research phase begins, skeletal recovery and staff training efforts will continue, because maintaining the collection in Rwanda requires a local staff well versed in curation methods. Albert Kayitare, a vet with the Rwandan Development Board, is part of that effort. Last fall Albert completed a program with the Smithsonian's Dr. David Hunt in skeletal curation, helping ready him to take a more active role in the collection phase over the next few years.

Soon Stephen and Amandine will return to investigating the deaths of hairless apes (that's us). Shannon will begin research at George Washington University. I will trade the Virunga Mountains for mountains of data, and retreat to a motion analysis lab. And Rwanda's gorillas are well on their way to being "de-mistified" after 10 million years of evolution, 40-plus years of behavioral observations, 10 years of planning, and two seasons of exhumations.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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