You Gotta Know: Primatologist Zarin Machanda does not monkey around

A chimpanzee is pictured in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Ronan Donovan / Kibale Chimpanzee Project

As far as 5-year-old Zarin Machanda was concerned, she had found her dream job: becoming an astronaut veterinarian. Fascinated by animals, she had seen a documentary of chimps in space with primatologist Jane Goodall and astronaut John Glenn. 

“The way that I interpreted what I saw was that there are chimpanzees up in space, and someone needs to go there and take care of them,” Machanda, an assistant professor in the anthropology department, explained. “I mean it’s not a job and there aren’t chimpanzees in space, but that’s when I had that idea that you can study wild animals — that’s super cool — and in space? Oh my god!”

Growing up in Toronto, Canada, Machanda went to a small all-girls school from grades 1–13. She credits her teachers at that school with having a profound impact on her life, particularly in her scientific interests. 

“For me, it was really beneficial to be in an all girls environment and studying science, and being told that I could do this, and I was good at this,” she shared.

In addition to her teachers, Machanda’s family instilled the importance of an education both in and out of school from a young age. She remembers her mom going out to her backyard and getting objects for her to “dissect” and take apart in the home kitchen. Further, Machanda was exposed to the world of research and academia through her uncle, a biologist at the University of Calgary. While her parents did not force her to go into science, they were certainly supportive. As her parents framed it, “education is important, working hard is important, and science is interesting.”

With an interest in animals and her parents’ teachings in mind, she headed off to McGill University on the path to become a wildlife veterinarian. Unlike most American liberal arts colleges which often have a lot of distribution requirements, as a biology major at McGill, she took mainly biology classes, from genetics to courses on lizards. 

“So I was very much on the pre-veterinary track,” Machanda noted. “But then a couple of things happened.” 

Every so often, she had space for an elective. One semester, one of the electives that fit was Human Evolution, which was in the anthropology department. 

As Machanda described it, “Human evolution is the history and prehistory of our history, but it’s based in biology. It’s kind of applying theories of evolution to understand our own species. It opened my eyes to how there are these fields in the world where you can have this deep love of biology, and deep dive into the past that I loved about history.”

As it turns out, in the United States and Canada, people who study primates like chimpanzees are closely linked to anthropology and biology departments.

“The elective turned on this light that there is this field that I really loved, but because I was focused on being a vet, I knew that I needed hands on experience with animals before applying to vet school,” Machanda reflected.

Luckily, just outside of Montreal is the Fauna Foundation, an animal sanctuary, or “retirement home” as Machanda worded it, that housed 15 chimpanzees at the time that had been retired from biomedical research. At the foundation, she familiarized herself with their behavior and volunteered by taking care of the animals and creating enrichment packages for the chimpanzees. Reflecting on her experience, Machanda likened it to an organic culmination of passions. 

“It was almost this perfect storm of getting to know this species from captivity, taking coursework on animal behavior and then having this experience of having classes in biological anthropology, which turned this biological lens onto humans,” Machanda said.

As she compared the behaviors of captive chimps with those in the wild that she was reading about for class, however, she questioned how power was related to gender depending on the nature of where the chimp had spent time.  

“What was interesting to me is that female chimps in captivity have more social power than what I was reading about in the wild,” Machanda said. “I was wondering if there was a lot of data about female male relationships out there. And it turns out there wasn’t.” 

So after majoring in biology and anthropology, her road to a Ph.D. began. Machanda did her Ph.D. in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University under Richard Wrangham, a “primatologist extraordinaire.” As part of her Ph.D., she went to collect data at Wrangham’s field site in Kibale National Park, Uganda, which he had founded in 1987.  

“I was in Uganda for about 18 months collecting data, so it’s a country that is very near and dear to my heart,” Machanda said. “It’s kind of like a second home at this point.”

Upon graduating with a Ph.D., Wrangham was looking to step away from the field project, and Machanda, along with two others, took over the operations of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in 2009. The Kibale Chimpanzee Project has been documenting the lives of more than 150 chimps over the course of 33 years in great detail. Every so often, a Tufts undergraduate gets to go to Uganda.  

How Machanda found herself at Tufts University was thanks to another wave of perfect timing.  

“I lived in Porter Square and I would drive by Tufts,” Machanda said. “I would think ‘Wow this is such a beautiful school, wouldn’t it be amazing to get a job there?’” 

At the time, there was only one biological anthropologist at Tufts, so she didn’t believe her dream job was a possibility. When the biological anthropologist retired in 2016, the dream became a reality.

Machanda is in charge of the long term data from the Kibale Chimpanzee Project and has her own digitized lab at Tufts. 

“In terms of my own research, because we have these long term chimpanzees, when people ask me what I study about chimps, the answer is everything,” Machanda said. “If you think of a question about chimps, chances are that we have data on it or have looked at it or want to look at it.” 

Specifically, Machanda has a longstanding interest in studying how and why chimpanzees form strong bonds. In her research, she has noticed that despite male-female bonds being important and a multifaceted relationship across many human cultures, this type of relationship was not as important in chimpanzees.  

“We have this strong evolutionary relationship towards chimpanzees, but it’s different with them, and it suggests that this strong male-female relationship evolved more recently,” she said.

When studying social rankings between male and female chimpanzees, Machanda has found interesting results. 

“If you look at wild populations of chimps, adult males always outrank adult females,” Machanda said. “In captivity what you see is more overlap, and that some females dominate the males.” 

Why the difference? Machanda believes the answer lies in females’ opportunity to form coalitionary power in captivity.

“In captivity where [competition over food] is reduced, females can spend time together and form bonds with each other,” she explained. “When a male gets stroppy, the females can bond together and go ‘No I don’t think so.’”

Machanda has also been looking at how age affects social bonds: She has noticed that as chimpanzees age, the males tend to have stronger social bonds. According to Machanda, similar to humans, chimpanzee males rely on their friends more as they age.

As for future research, she is focused on studying the evolution of leadership and dominance hierarchies. Machanda has several questions she hopes to address, including “Why are there some chimps that just have that [charismatic] appeal, where other chimps will just follow them?” The study will allow researchers to not only combine decades of behavioral data, including personality traits and intelligence levels, but also over 30 years’ worth of physiological data that can be investigated for biomarkers of health, such as testosterone and cortisol levels. From there, she’ll work on making multifaceted, in-depth leadership profiles.  

So what about free time? As Machanda lightheartedly puts it: “Free time is a funny term.” With two children under the age of three, Machanda plays with trains. An avid baker, she is also on a tireless pursuit for the best chocolate cake. 

“If anyone wants a good recipe for chocolate cake, let me know!” she said.

Despite her family and cooking time, chimpanzee-related affairs make up a large portion of her time off. According to Machanda, chimpanzees take up a good chunk of not only her academic time, but also personal time. 

“For those of us who study chimps, it becomes a default passion that you become very interested in conservation,” she said.

To that end, Machanda has been passionate about The Kasiisi Project, which was created to improve the lives of the people outside the park. Since starting at one school in 1997, The Kasiisi Project has spread to 16 primary schools within five kilometers of the park. Machanda says the hopes are that if the project can make the lives of the kids around the national park better, then some of them can grow up to not rely on deforestation as their livelihood.

“It has this holistic quality — there are things that you do that have nothing to do with conservation to make the lives of these kids better, and that in itself is conservation,” Machanda said. “But in actuality, it means making sure girls stay in school by providing menstrual products for them or doing teacher training, and making sure they have classrooms to go to.” 

While The Kasiisi Project has provided many opportunities for Tufts students, Machanda is quick to mention that “we really, really try to avoid this idea of voluntourism.” The students work on projects that the staff of Ugandans have developed and are directing, and once the students leave, the project continues. 

“The fact that these projects have been going on for decades really builds trust for these stakeholders — they know we’re coming back,” Machanda said. “But at the same time, we know we’re not Ugandans, and we don’t have the local knowledge of either the forest or culture to know what people really want or need.”

To say that Machanda is grateful of how her path has extraordinarily unfolded would be an understatement. Her life and career can be traced to not only the Jane Goodall and John Glenn documentaries, but to that one off-the-cuff anthropology class. 

“Thinking about my own story … it just so happened that I took this extracurricular activity that changed my life,” Machanda said. “And that’s the magic of college.”