As deforestation, climate change, and other pressures threaten habitats, how might chimpanzees adapt? An interdisciplinary research team has turned to the physical laws that govern matter to explore one facet of this question: how the animals will cluster and travel through their territory as the terrain they share with other members of their species shrinks.
To simulate chimp behavior, the scientists created a computer model based on equations normally used to describe the movement of atoms and molecules in a confined space. "We thought it would be interesting to see if we could use the kind of modeling we use for physics to model the behavior of animals," says physicist Surajit Sen. "We were pleasantly surprised that it works. Our model shows how competition for an important resource--food--affects how chimpanzees spread out in a given area."
The simulation successfully has replicated certain chimpanzee behaviors reported in the academic literature that researchers have witnessed in the wild. The model could be expanded in the future to predict how a shrinking habitat might affect chimp populations.
As physicist Matthew Westley explains, the modeling technique the team used was fairly...