Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Identity Matters in Science

 In April, I went down to Chambana (U of Illinois, my alma mater and the location for my new postdoc) for the 21st Century Working Scientists meeting. The meeting was about engaging in science communication, public outreach, and broadening participation in science. Danielle Lee was the keynote speaker and spoke about bringing your identity into outreach. We all set goals for what we wanted to accomplish in our scientific communication, and the ways that we wanted to approach it. Danielle's approach to blogging (and scientific communication in general) was the opposite of mine. She was all about bringing her whole identity to blogging. That means stating exactly who she is, and what she thinks, and how that affects her science. The reason I stopped blogging a few years ago was because I was afraid to do that. I was overly-anxious about how others may perceive me based on my writing, particularly search committees. For a two-year period, I averaged about an interview a month, so I knew that they would probably be googling me and reading anything I put out on the internet. It strait-jacketed my ability to write at all. I worried that if I wrote about captive animal welfare, or my feelings about using primates in biomedical research, or the challenges of being a woman of color in science, that it could detrimentally affect my career prospects.

My perspective on this has changed. I used to think that if I highlighted my research background and focus on the science, that's all that mattered. But I've learned that it doesn't work that way. We don't conduct or disseminate our research in a vacuum, and we can't leave the sociocultural context at the door. It follows into classrooms and labs and field sites. It shapes the opportunities we get, the way our colleagues treat us, and the social and intellectual environment in which we try to do research, writing, and outreach.

Many of the events in the past month have made it hard to focus on research, writing and science. How do you focus on your work when social media is constantly blowing up with the latest tragedy? In the past month, we've seen the deadliest mass shooting targeting LGBTQA, predominantly Latinx individuals. With Trump's campaign egging on hatred and xenophobia, and anti-Islamic sentiment, Muslims and Sikhs are facing increased risks for hate crimes and racial profiling in the US. After the Brexit vote, hate crimes are surging in the UK as well. Meanwhile, in Turkey, Bangaladesh, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, there's been a spate of attacks, some of which target either holy sites or Muslims celebrating Eid. While it's clear that ISIS is targeting devout, observant Muslims, many Americans are still equating Muslims (and Sikhs, and anyone that looks brownish or Middle Eastern or South Asian) with terrorism. And in the past two days we watched the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile streaming across social media. These murders are just two in a long list of police violence against black people. And then at the ensuing protests at Dallas, there was another deadly shooting targeting the police officers at the event. And it continues...I'm scared to hear about what might be next.

I'm tempted to block out all media, hide out, and try to focus on my writing goals for this summer. But that's hard to do. It's hard to live in country where there are so many ordinary citizens owning guns and harboring hatred for anyone who is an "other." It's hard to live in a country where the police target, harass, and murder for people for being black or brown. It's hard to sign into Facebook and see some of my friends liking hateful, racists memes. It's hard to live in country where the Republican presidential nominee is outrightly encouraging xenophobic and misogynistic hate toward pretty much anyone who isn't white (or Christian, or straight, or male).

In this social and political climate, it's hard to be an "other." I'm not part of a heavily targeted group, so I have it easier than many others (in case you were wondering, I'm Indian, Catholic, and my last name is Portuguese). But I've certainly encountered my share of microaggressions, some of which are based on either my actual identity, or what people perceive me to be (people usually assume I'm Latina, but occasionally I've also been mistaken for a variety of other ethnicities). My last international conference experience (to Canada, a place that I thought was racially progressive compared to the US!) was definitely marred by the "flying while brown" treatment. In the past year I've become increasingly anxious as xenophobic sentiment has increased in the US. It really hit home for me when a Sikh man was brutally attacked while driving in my community, just down the road from where my childhood church and high school.

It's hard to not feel anxious when this sort of violence is a reality. In the wake of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Danielle wrote that she is Too Traumatized to Science, and I'm going to add to that. In a social and political climate where minorities and "others" live in a state of fear and anxiety, it takes a psychological toll. If want the culture of scientific research to actually be "inclusive" and "diverse" we need to recognize that, and make space to deal with it. As a whole, we need to acknowledge that black lives matter, that brown lives matter, that gay lives matter, and that when social and political issues affect some of us, it affect all of us.

I'm back in Chambana now, working with the Girls Adventures in Math, Engineering, and Sciences (GAMES). We've been discussing with them the ways in which identity influences the scientific process, and how diverse perspectives result in better bioengineering. I'm glad that they are learning this lesson now--it's one that I think all of us would have benefited from a bit earlier in our scientific training.



Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What can we learn from Harambe's death?

Images of Harambe from the Gladys Porter Zoo 

Over the past few days, several people have asked me for my opinion on Harambe's death. Was his behavior aggressive? How much of a danger did he pose to little Isaiah? Could they have rescued Isaiah without shooting Harambe? Is it cruel and/or dangerous to keep apes in zoos?*

I've waited to respond to these questions in detail, because my full response is longer than I want to devote a Facebook comment, and I wanted some time to reflect. My initial response, like many, was to blame the parents for being inattentive, and to question if the zoo staff could have tried harder to find an alternate way to safely retrieve Isaiah. 

On reflection, I think it's a mistake to blame either the parents OR zoo staff. Yes, the parents should have kept a closer eye on their child. But almost every parent has had a moment when their kid slipped away. And the amount of hatred and vitriol directed specifically at the mother--not the father, who was also present--is disturbing (see Barbara King's NPR column for some perspective on this). I suspect that the harsh criticism and public shaming of the mother is partially rooted in both sexism and racism.

Some blame the zoo for not designing a secure, child-proof enclosure, but I also think that this is a bit unfair. Yes, every zoo enclosure SHOULD keep animals safely in, and human visitors safely out. But it passed previous inspections, and has been safe from human intrusion for decades. Unfortunately, no exhibit is completely human- or animal-proof, and often we don't recognize the flaws in barriers UNTIL a wily human or animal finds it. 

As much as I wish that the zoo staff could have found a way to safely retrieve Isaiah without harming Harambe, I know they followed their protocol and made a decision that prioritized human safety. I don't think that human lives are intrinsically more valuable than gorilla lives. Both are important and meaningful to me. But for obvious ethical and legal reasons, zoos are obligated to prioritize the safety of humans above the lives of the animals. Zoos have trained response teams whose job is to evaluate situations in which an animal is endangering humans, and make these split-second decisions. The keepers tried calling in the gorillas--the females in the group went in, but Harambe did not. Tranquilizers are almost never a viable option in these situations, because they will likely result in a more agitated animal who could behave unpredictably.  

I've seen a lot of different interpretations of Harambe's behavior from primatologists I respect--some state that Harambe's actions were aggressive display behavior, others interpret it as protective or playful behavior (I recommend reading/listening/viewing the perspectives from Frans de Waal, Craig Stanford, Scott Suarez, Barbara King, Ian Redmond, and Amy Parish). From the video clips I've seen, I can see both--Harambe stands protectively over Isaiah, and seems to be holding his hand and shielding his body at a couple points. But at other points he drags Isaiah around, and that looks like a display. It's possibly he was displaying, it's possibly he was dragging Isaiah around to protect him--but either way, human children are fragile, and Isaiah's life was in danger. I think it's possible that keeper staff might have been able to eventually calm and distract Harambe--but waiting to do so meant risking greater harm to Isaiah.

Can we learn from this?

Unfortunately, neither hindsight nor assigning blame will bring Harambe back. So instead, I think it's more productive to think about ways we can learn from it, and if there's anything positive that can come from it. I do find it encouraging that so many people care about Harambe, and hope this can be a learning opportunity for the public.

1. When visiting zoos we need to be mindful and respectful of the animals.

One thing that is striking in the video of Harambe and Isaiah is that it's clear the visitor noise and commotion is agitating Harambe, and contributing to the escalation of his display behavior. While, hopefully, none of us will be in this situation in the future, I've seen this play out in much more subtle ways while observing zoo animals. When zoo visitors see aggression, displays, or agitated animals, they react loudly. Sometimes particularly obnoxious humans will  elicit or exacerbate the situate by banging on exhibit glass, or making threatening motions and gestures. Many primates are threatened by intense staring (which is often perceived as a challenge), open-mouthed facial expressions (which is a threat behavior), and large, expansive gestures (which look like displays). Try to avoid making these sort of unintentional threat behaviors. If your kids are doing so, take them away from the exhibit and have them run off their energy at one of the zoo playgrounds instead. 

2. Keep a close eye on your children at the zoo, and read and obey posted signs.

Obviously no one intends to lose their kid, but often I have seen people keep less than a watchful eye on their kids at the zoo. Additionally, a lot of adults disregard signs that are posted for the sake of both the animals well-being and human safety. One summer when I was observing rhino behavior for a zoo welfare project, I saw some of the interesting reactions people had when thye read a sign that said that the rhino may spray urine. Some read the sign and immediately avoided the whole area. Others laughed and moved in closer--even when the rhino was backing up and lifting his tail (a sure sign that spraying was about to occur). 

3. If you care of the lives of gorillas, contribute to conservation efforts. 

All gorillas species and subspecies are endangered or critically endangered in the wild (see the IUCN red list). Their major threats are humans poaching (primarily for bushmeat, but babies often end up in the pet trade), Ebola, mining, and logging. Both hunting and disease transmission are facilitated by logging. Logging concessions establish roads and logging camps, which increase contact with humans, as well as provide infrastructure to bring bushmeat to urban markets. Furthermore, coltan mining similarly threatens gorillas in Central Africa. While we may believe we have little to do with these threats, it's our behavior within the global market that drive these activities. 

What You Can Do To Conserve Gorillas

4. Avoid sharing pictures/video of humans interacting with primates or other wild animals.

It may seem cute and harmless, but you are are contributing to industries of exploitation. This includes both the illegal pet trade, as well as individuals and organizations that keep animals in cruel and abusive situations for entertainment. Furthermore, it gives people (both adults and children), the idea that interacting with wild animals can be safe or fun. Kids are particularly impressionable, and if they see pictures/video of people playing with wild animals, of course they are going to want to do it to (I highly recommend reading  Please Do not Hug the Dangerous Wildlife  and watching Is Social Media Saving or Enslaving the Slow Loris for more information about this).

5. Remember Harambe with respect and dignity.

Gorillas are intelligent animals with complex emotions and social relationships, and I'm certain he will be missed and mourned by both his gorilla family and the humans who cared for him. My heart breaks for his keepers, and the female gorillas Mara and Chewie. Silverback gorillas are the center of gorillas social groups, and it will probably be difficult for Mara and Chewie to adjust to Harambe's absence. Silverback must protect their groups from takeovers from bachelor groups, as well as threats from human poachers. While we can't be certain of his intentions when interacting with Isaiah, I suspect that his actions were rooted in protecting his group.

* I believe it is ethical to keep great apes in zoos, and am confident that AZA-accredited zoos prioritize animal welfare. However, I've avoided addressing this subject here, because that delving into that topic requires it's own post.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Official Hiatus

If you are still following, you may have noticed that it's been nearly a year since I last posted. I have several barely-complete to nearly-complete posts that are still drafts...but never got the time to finish them.

Anyway, for now SpiderMonkeyTales is on hiatus. I have a new website and e-portfolio I created to do e-portfolios with my primate class at: http://mrodrigueseportfolio.wordpress.com/. I will be sharing primatology content and writing a post for every assignment my students are doing. So start following me there to keep up with my recent primatological writing!

I'm undecided about whether or not I will return to actively blogging on SpiderMonkeyTales. But I will be doing a guest post for BANDIT, and of course posting on the new e-portfolio site this semester. Wordpress is a major pain, and I am missing the simplicity of blogger. But whatever I decide to do, SpiderMonkeyTales will stay up. Re-reading my old posts made me very nostalgic, and will always remain a record of my dissertation fieldwork experience.

My beautiful bonobo friend Lady and me

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Party Tree (aka my favorite Ficus)



I have several favorite trees at El Zota. But this Ficus (fig) tree is my absolute favorite. There are a lot of things to love about this tree--it's roots are beautiful, it's on the station's grounds, and the gazebo in the lagoon is an ideal vantage point to watch it. But the reason I love it is because when it fruits, it becomes a popular hotspot for the monkeys and other wildlife.



Ficus trees fruit asynchronously. Rather than fruiting around the same time, each Ficus fruits on its own schedule. This particular tree fruits twice a year, once in the winter and once in the summer, but its hard to predict exactly when. However, if you periodically monitor it, you'll see when little unripe pinkish-white fruits appear. These figs ripen to a deeper pink, and when they do, it's party time! Figs are a keystone resource among primates in many locations, and are found throughout the tropics (there are a number of different species, so the fruit varies between species and among habitats--while this tree produces small pink fruits, other Ficus trees in this forest produce large green fruit). When the fruit ripens, it's a good source of sugar and carbohydrates (essential for highly frugivorous spider monkeys!). But, figs also contain protein (due to the presence of fig wasps that have a symbiotic relationship with the fruits) and calcium, which isn't present in a lot of fruits. So, they are a great resource, and when a fig tree fruits, it's absolutely laden with fruit--until the hungry frugivores completely deplete it (the figs on this tree only last for a few days once they ripen--after that, it's pretty picked through, and then usually howler monkeys and other less picky eaters consume the fruit that didn't properly ripen).

I call this tree the "party tree" for several reasons. First, because when it is fruiting, it attracts all three species of monkeys, as well as coatis, birds, and other frugivores, and it tends to be a noisy and festive attraction. Second, subgroups of spider monkeys are also known as parties, and I like the play on words when I talk about spider monkey parties. Also, my friend Stacy and I had a running joke about trying to identify the community members. Because spider monkeys are in dispersed, fission-fusion communities, the whole community is rarely (if ever) together as a whole. Instead, community members travel in flexible subgroups that are always changing. These subgroups are usually fairly small (mean subgroup size is usually 2-3 individuals, excluding infants who travel on their mothers), but occasionally can be larger, particularly when multiple subgroups converge at key fruiting trees. This community has approximately 35-40 individuals. However, the largest subgroup I've seen was about 15-20 individuals. This makes it really difficult to assess how many communities are present at El Zota, and identify the boundaries of the different communities territories. Furthermore, Stacy and I were both studying females and juveniles--which don't frequent the edges of territories as frequently as the males. So, Stacy and I had a running joke about how we would identify community membership--we talked about throwing a spider monkey block party, where we'd serve fermented fruit, and give the spider monkeys name tags and sharpies, so that they could write their names and community identify with their prehensile tails.



Okay, so obviously, that was a bit of anthropomorphic silliness that could never happen. However, on my first trip to El Zota, we had the next best thing. We were only there for a few weeks, over winter break (Dec 2005-Jan 2006--seven years ago!). During that time, I was trying to collect pilot data for my masters project. I didn't know the forest that well, and I had not yet mastered the art of following spider monkeys and navigating swamps. And... I didn't have the best binoculars (I got new ones that spring before returning to El Zota in the summer). All of these factors made identifying individuals and collecting data quite challenging. But then, the figs ripened. And for several days, subgroups of spider monkeys fed, rested, and socialized in the tree for most of the day (and slept in the tree--Stacy could hear them at night/early morning from the cabin closest to the tree). Occasionally they would retreat into nearby trees or travel away briefly (usually when the tree was taken over by a raucous capuchin group), but for most of the day they stayed there (some of them--party composition changed over the course of the day, with some individuals coming and going), affording me great opportunities to see them well, identify females and juveniles, and conduct focal observations. Additionally, it also gave Stacy and me some great opportunities to take pictures! Some of the best pictures of juvenile male Tristan were taken that day.










Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Welcome to the Year of the Chimpanzee!


Barbara King suggests that 2013 should be the Year of the Chimpanzee. I think this is a great idea! The year is starting off with Jane Goodall as the Grand Marshall of the Rose Parade. 

I ended 2012 by finishing and defending my PhD, and now I am onto developing some potential chimpanzee and bonobo projects. So, the Year of Chimpanzee works well with my current interests. But don't worry, I won't be neglecting the spider monkeys... there are always more spider monkey tales to tell!

See some of the links below for more on the beginning of the Year of the Chimpanzee!





And start off 2013 by enjoying this adorable clip of Cy, a male infant chimpanzee at Fongoli!



Sunday, September 16, 2012

Field Journals: Summer 2008

I have been neglecting my blog because I'm am in dissertation crunch time! But I just came across one of my old field journals, so I figured I'd share some of my thoughts from the beginning of my pilot work in the summer of 2008.

6-6-08

I'm so happy, possibly giddy, to be in CR again.  Today I am going to head back to my beautiful, magical spider monkeys!

6-7-08


We got into El Zota yesterday. It's good to return here.  Yesterday afternoon, I saw capuchins and howlers.  And this morning, I took the new Laguna trail (later named Sendero Colorado) and saw spiders monkeys.  They started off alarm-barking, more than I ever remember them alarm-barking before!  There was an adult female with a dorsal infant, another adult female, and then an adult female with a juvenile female.  The female with the infant had Evita-like facial markings, and I think the juvie female is Buttercup (one of my focal individuals from my masters research two years before)!  The others left, but Buttercup and her mom stayed, and Buttercup cam down low and watched me.  It was great!  I was so deliriously happy to see them.

6-9-08



Today I saw a semi-plumbeous hawk (Leucopternis semiplumbea) and a male scarlet-rumped tanager (Ramphocelus passerinii).  I also saw a coati, toucans, capuchins, and plenty of whip-tails (Ameiva festiva).  Yesterday I think I saw a flash of an agouti and had great spider monkey encounters.  I spent an hour with a party containing an adult female (I think Beatrice) and a juvenile female (I think my dear Buttercup!) and a third adult female--she has white markings on her nose that look like sunblock, so I'm going to call her Coppertone (during my dissertation research, she was re-named Leila).  I also ran into a party containing an adult female and a young juvenile-2 male.  Unfortunately, I then fell into the floating vegetation mat swamp, and lost the monkeys.

Later, I also saw howlers, capuchins, and spiders in association together. A juvenile male spider monkey and  a juvenile howler monkey were playing together.  The juvie spider monkey chased the juvie howler, and she appeared scared.  But then, in retaliation, an adult male howler hit the juvenile spider monkey!

6-11-08


I found one adult female spider in the afternoon, in association with howlers and capuchins.

After that, I got busy with a field course and data collection, and the journal-writing stopped. But it's fun to read those recollections from several years ago!

Midwest Primate Interest Group meetings!

In a couple weeks, one of my favorite conferences, MPIGs, is coming up!  I'm really excited for this year, because I have both a podium and poster presentation.  Also, I'm finally going to meet a couple of my fellow primatology bloggers, Raymond of Prancing Papio, and Ashlee of This is Serious Monkey Business.

 Here are my abstracts for the presentations!

Podium Presentation


Seasonality, activity patterns, and cortisol in female spider monkeys in a wet forest environment.

Seasonality plays a crucial role in shaping the ecological context in which individuals live, which in turn shapes their internal processes.  The glucocorticoids, or stress hormones, are crucial in allocating the body’s resources in accordance with ecological demands, and most animal species experience seasonal variation in glucocorticoid concentrations. Here, I report on the effects of seasonality and activity patterns on cortisol concentrations in wild subadult and adult female spider monkeys, at El Zota Biological Field Station in Costa Rica.  Over a 15-month research period, mean individuals rates of time engaged in rest are significantly negatively correlated with mean cortisol concentrations (Spearman’s rho=-0.737, p=0.010. N=11).  No other activity variable was significantly associated with mean cortisol concentrations. Additionally, over the course of a year, the effects of monthly fruit abundance, mean party size, and activity variables were assessed.  Although fruit abundance and party sizes did significantly vary between seasons, cortisol concentrations did not.  Furthermore, in a general linear model, none of these variables significantly explain variation in monthly cortisol concentrations, although a non-significant trend was observed between time engaged in rest and cortisol concentrations ((F=4.703, p=0.082).  These results indicate that in this mildly seasonal environment, variability in fruit abundance and party size has little effect on cortisol concentrations.  Rather, time engaged in rest appears to be the most important factor in affecting individual’s cortisol concentrations.

Poster Presentation

Whinnies, grooming, and estradiol in wild female spider monkeys.

Identifying hormonal correlates of social behavior in primates can help us understand variation in specific social behaviors across individuals.  Here, I report preliminary results of a study of behavior and endocrinology in wild adult and subadult female spider monkeys from El Zota Biological Field Station, Costa Rica, over a 15-month period.  Estradiol concentrations were assayed from fecal samples collected from recognized females using Enzyme-immunoassay (EIA) techniques. Over the entire research period, mean individual rates of whinny vocalizations were significantly correlated with mean estradiol concentrations (Spearman’s rho=0.818, two-tailed p=0.002, N=11).  Furthermore, both whinny rates (Spearman’s rho=-0.755, two-tailed p=0.007, N=11) and estradiol concentrations (Spearman’s rho=-0.764, two-tailed p=0.006, N=11) were significantly negatively correlated with mean grooming rates.  These findings cannot be accounted for by differences in age, reproductive state, or parity.  Previous studies have indicated a sex difference in whinny production rates, with females producing more whinnies than males. The results of this study suggest that endogenous hormonal factors may affect whinny production, and these factors may underlie the pronounced sex differences observed for this vocalization. The negative relationship between whinnies and grooming indicate that whinnies may serve as a form of “vocal grooming” that plays a role in maintaining social bonds in a less time-exhaustive manner.