Friday, December 31, 2010

Capuchins in the Backyard

All of these pictures are from the backyard, right behind my window.

Muttonchop Mindy

a cute moment...

Hi all, sorry I have been so horrible at updating the blog! I never seem to have enough time at internet cafes, and I've been rather busy during my holiday break back in the US! But here's a post I wrote some time ago...

Today, I only spent twenty minutes watching the monkeys, but it was definitely a good twenty minutes. The first focal was like most others—monkeys happily pigging out on Spondias. However, the next focal was one of the cutest 10 minutes I’ve ever watched in the field. Leila and Jlo curled up in the crook of a tree, each of them reclining in an opposite direction on the branches. Meanwhile, hanging down in between/on top of them were Judah and Lorelai, dangling from their tails and wrestling. Jlo groomed Lorelai, then attempted to Judah, who was too busy playing to be bothered with a quick grooming session. Judah and Lorelai scampered off to continue playing a few meters away, and Jlo resumed grooming Leila. And then, Jlo shifted positions, so that she was lying with her head on Leila’s belly, and Leila groomed her. And then, at the end of the focal, they were off traveling again, so quickly after their short social break.

This all occurred just in the backyard, and I so wish I’d had my camera to take a picture of them. I’m not sure I could have gotten a good picture (I pretty much could only see them standing in one spot, crouching slightly, and needed my binoculars to see grooming movements), but it was so adorable, seeing the two females curled up so cozily, with the kids dangling between them. And the sight of Jlo curled up with her head on Leila’s belly was just priceless. It seems to me as though the spiders don’t have much time to engage in socializing (it always seems to be a quick social interaction here or there in between resting or feeding or traveling), but when they do, it’s clear that they do have some strong bonds. I’m really hoping that by the end of the year, I have enough of these tiny moments recorded. It seems so obvious to me that some of the females here have very tight friendships, but its really tough to get enough data that can really support that. However, I think that, as long as I can amass enough data, there will be a pattern of some tight friendships between particular individuals, a few individuals who are social butterflies, and then some who are socially isolated. I’m hoping that the tightly bonded and social butterflies will have a pattern of lower cortisol concentrations (thus supporting my hypotheses). I also suspect, at least at the moment, that the individuals that are the most isolated are the subadults and adult females without offspring—I’m wondering if that pattern will hold when I look at the data.

Sometimes, from watching the monkeys, you get a subjective impression regarding what’s going on, and it’ll be really interesting to see if the data eventually supports that. Of course, I still have nearly a year of data collection to go, so it’ll definitely be a while.

Today I also had a bit of a conundrum trying to collect a fecal sample. I saw the sample fall, and then went down the area to look for it. At first, I could find it (which is sooo frustrating), but then, I saw a piece of the sample—wedged on the head of a daddy long-legs-ish spider. The problem then, became, how to successfully collect the sample and free the spider? I tried taking the edge of a folded leaf, and using another leaf, tried to pry it lose from the spider. Eventually, between my efforts and the spider’s wriggling, I managed to get it free and process it. Let’s hope that the spider doesn’t have any pheromones or anything like that on the top of its head that could affect the hormone analysis . . .

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Jlo and Judah

This is Judah

And this is Jlo!

Leila and Lorelai

This is Lorelai, the juvie daughter of one of my favorite focal animals, Leila.

And these are pics of Leila herself!

I´m becoming habituated . . .

The rainforest is a malleable place. At moments it seems absolutely magical, such as they rare occasion when you hear strange sounds that turn out to be coming from a tapir, or a day of following your monkeys with great visibility as they groom, play, and embrace. At other times, it is truly miserable, such as when you get so stuck in the swamp you have to crawl out, you get bitten by bullet ants, or you brush up again stinging plants that produces burning welts. But most of the time, you get very used to it, and it’s just very mundane—just like your backyard back home, only instead of squirrels in the trees, there are capuchins.

While that might sound anything but mundane, just as the monkeys get habituated to you, you become increasingly habituated to the forest. The creatures that seemed so exotic and exciting your first week start to become just another boring sight that you aren’t all that interested in. You look forward to the rare encounters of creatures you’re dying to see (tapir, jaguarundi, tamandua, and of course the holy grail of them all, jaguar), but fail to get excited at seeing the everyday creatures.

For example, on almost any day, a hike in the forest almost guarantees an encounter with strawberry and green-and-black poison dart frogs, highways of leaf-cutter ants busy at work, Ameiva festiva lizards, various small anoles, and orependulas. In addition there are almost an innumberable amount of insects and spiders (arachnids, not monkeys) that I have little interest in and don’t bother looking closely at (I’m more concerned with trying to keep spider webs, their residents, and their prey off my face—this doesn’t always work).

Yesterday, I had a frustrating day in which I could not find my monkeys. I spent hours hiking through the forest with absolutely no success. In addition to the above creatures, I saw a tarantula as big as my hand, keel-billed toucans, blue morpho butterflies, cat footprints just a bit smaller than the size of my hand (probably jaguarundi or ocelot—jaguarandi have been seen by a few lucky people, I haven’t heard of any sightings of ocelot), tapir tracks, and howler monkeys. Oh and I also saw capuchin monkeys in the backyard, clowning around right outside the kitchen, just after lunch. However, the sad thing was—this was my idea of a really disappointing day. Perhaps the sighting of something slightly more unusual could have made up for the lack of spider monkeys (I still get excited about seeing peccary, river otters, armadillos, coatis, and tayra, as well as unusual birds I don’t see very often) . . . But no spider monkeys means no data, which really stresses me out (especially in a week like this week, in which I have been feeling sick and thus not going out as often, and when I have been heading out, I’ve had really bad luck at finding/following my monkeys). But it nonetheless occurred to me yesterday that I’ve gotten really, really spoiled, and my habituation to the wonders of the forest means that I no longer enjoy or appreciate it as much as I should.

Fieldwork Blues

I originally started this blog because I had serious field-blog-envy. I’d read other people’s postings about their fieldwork, and it make my miss the field. I was excited about getting to my own fieldwork, and sharing my stories to make all of my readers basilisk-green with envy.

Let me warn you then, that sometimes it’s much more fun to dream of fieldwork and read other people’s fieldwork tales than it is to be in the field.

I know this. I’ve said before that fieldwork is 90% drudgery and misery, and 10% of being so absolutely magical and amazing that it make you want to keep slogging through that miserable 90%. But when you are at home, comfortably ensconced in all the comforts of home, reading stories about fieldwork while you are snuggled on the couch with your cat, somehow fieldwork sounds so much more exciting. And memory dims all your moments of being miserable in the field, and instead you remember that one really amazing day when you saw howler monkeys, a coati, and iguana, in the same tree, or the day you saw a juvie female spider using a stick as a tool to scratch herself, or the days when you managed to stick with one party of spider monkeys and follow them for four hours straight.

Yet, somehow, when I was in the US on a two-year break from fieldwork (which was never my intention, but waiting for grant money and life happening in the meantime caused me to push back my fieldwork until about a year later than I originally planned), that’s all I seemed to remember. And this summer, I’ve gotten a HUGE dose of the many downsides of fieldwork.

For starters, there’s illness. Now, I tend to have a pretty dismal immune systems, so I spend plenty of time being sick wherever I am. But this summer, I began my fieldwork with an unknown ailment (according to the doctor, “a bug,”) that slowed me down and majorly cut down on the amount of time I felt able to actually spend in the forest with the monkeys. And the past few weeks (including my time spent in the US), I’ve had bad stomach problems, so between my trip to the US and a week of feeling miserably sick, I missed out on about two weeks of data collection. Being sick is miserable, no matter where you are. But in the field, it’s twice (if not thrice) as worse, because in addition to feeling horrible, you’re away from all the comforts of home, plus you’re stressing out on all the data you might be missing out on. And the combination of feeling icky, stressing about your research, and being bored and frustrated at the station just make you feel worse. And in case that’s not bad enough, there’s always the fun of clinics in a country where you can’t fluently speak the language . . . (although I realize it could be much worse—I’m grateful to be in Costa Rica, where the medical care is good and I at least speak a bit of the language).

And then there’s all the biting and stinging things in the forest. I am the mosquitoes equivalent of crème brulee, tiramisu, and cheesecake, all rolled into one—they absolutely swarm me, and I think I regularly become anemic from losing too much blood to them. While they are the biggest irritation, then there’s the occasional biting ants, and then bullet ants and stinging plants. Today I brushed by one of the stinging plants, which leaves burning welts on any skin it comes in contact with. And yesterday I got two bullet ant bites, which brings my lifetime number of bites up to 6.

Of course, there’s always the swamp. My field site has tons of swamp, and every time I’m stuck in it, I think of The Neverending Story, when Atreyu’s horse dies in the swamp because he thought sad thoughts. Whenever I start sinking in the swamp, my first thought is of poor Atreyu’s horse (which of course, is a sad thought, which would only hasten my drowning if El Zota’s swamps worked the same way as they did in the movie—luckily they don’t. Sad thoughts or happy thoughts, I can usually drag myself out by crawling, if all other attempts to haul myself out have failed). At least right now, the swamps are actually at a minimum, because it’s been incredibly dry here lately (dry here as in not a lot of rain—it’s still super-humid).
But really, the two major frustrations I have right now are 1) not getting as much data as I would like (because those damn spider monkeys are not cooperating!), and 2) being away from my boyfriend. I can put up with the swamp, the insects, all the evils the forest has to throw at me, if I can spend some quality time with the spiders. And I do, sometimes, but more often, it seems like either the monkeys are being elusive, or I find them, and they find ways to evade me shortly into following them. And when I’m not spending enough quality time with them, it’s hard to stay motivated and enjoy being here. And the less I enjoy being here, the more I feel guilty for having to be away for so long, and the more I regret the life choices that have lead me here (why, oh why, did I decide to go to grad school years ago? Why did I decide that I had to do my research on the social behavior and endocrinology of wild spider monkeys? Couldn’t I have picked an easier dissertation project?). Of course, I knew exactly what I was getting myself into . . . so I only have myself to blame.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Monkeys in the backyard

I have been slacking in writing field updates—between being sick, getting data (and, the downside of getting data, having to enter it!), and a very busy trip to the US for a wedding . . . Writing has been at the top of the list. And while I sometimes find myself mentally composing what I want to write (usually when I’m wandering through the forest on days when the monkeys are scarce), I rarely get to it. However, I’m going to try to get better (and as the amount of people at the station starts to dwindle now that summer is coming to end, I will probably be more motivated to write).

Anyway, one of the most wonderful things about my field station is that is it nestled right next to the forest. As a result, we have a lots of animals visiting the station—including all three species of monkey. My room has a window facing the backyard, so I can boast of having seen capuchins, howlers, and spider monkeys from my bed (as well as an emerald basilisk, a coati, and a few keel-billed toucans and orependulas)! While all three species are not there all the time (that would make things too easy), the capuchins seem to visit nearly every day. For a while, a couple female spiders and their kids would visit every day as well, but for the past week, they’ve been makings themselves a bit scarcer than usual. As for the howlers, they are usually the most infrequent visitors, but when they roll through, they tend to stick around a bit longer, and are useful for providing a morning wake-up call.

Today however, the spider monkeys have returned. I spent the early afternoon reading/taking pictures at the gazebo in the lagoon, trying to avoid the afternoon heat. However, the spiders announced themselves with a flurry of whinnies and a bit of crashing through the trees, so I ran back to my room and got back into my field clothes and grabbed my gear. They then spent the afternoon traveling along the creek that runs wraps around the station, concluding with many of the females feeding in a Spondias tree in the backyard. There was a HUGE party of monkeys, which later fissioned into several parties—I counted 5 adult/subadult males, 2 subdadult females, 4 adult females, and 4 immatures. Considering that the parties I generally run into are about 2-5 individuals (unless there is a big party tree fruiting), this was quite a gathering. Even more exiting, was that one of the females in the party, Agata, was a female I haven’t seen since the end of June. I previously had only one 10-focal on her, so it was a big relief to see her and get some data on her. I’m still at only 4 focals on her, while my top female (Leila) is at 31 focals—so clearly I have a lot more catching up to do. But it’s a start!
Even better, about an hour after I finished my last focal (which took me back into the forest, where I had a run-in with a painful stinging plant, which prompted me to call it a day), the spiders returned to the backyard! They were whinnying and vocalizing quite a bit, and continued to chatter even after it got dark (it’s the first night I’ve gotten to listen to whinnies during dinner!). That means they are spending the night close by!

I also have pictures that were supposed to go along with this post, but unfortunately my attempts to write a post with Word and then upload it here did not work with the pics--next time I promise to make include some beautiful pics of my backyard visitors!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Rainy day monkey watching

From June 13, 2010 (again)

The Ficus is fruiting! Right now (or rather, as I wrote this earlier today), I´m sitting in the gazebo on the lagoon, as the rain pours down in sheets around us. But I can still see the Ficus bursting with ripe pink figs. Every few minutes, I peer through my binoculars, to see a brown ball of fur hunkered down. I know that brown mass contains two monkeys: Adult female Evelyn, and her juvie daughter Elsa. Earlier, when it began to drizzle, they continued foraging, but as it began to pour, they moved lower down in the tree. And there they are, an immobile mass of resting monkeys. There were at least two other monkeys in the ficus, but I´m not sure where they are now. Unaided, I can´t even see Evelyn and Elsa, and if I hadn´t seen them moving to their resting spot, I wouldn´t have known where to find that brown mass in the tangle of branches, leaves, and fruit.

The Ficus is what I call the party tree. I´ve been here twice before when its fruited, and each time for several days the spiders spend most of their days there, moving away only when the capuchins occupied the tree. Often, they´d even sleep there. The spiders and caps gorged themselves on figs, until the tree was fairly depleted or the ripe fruits. Finally, at the end, the howler monkeys would arrive, foraging among the mostly unripe fruits that remained.

It´s still raining, but the downpour is lessening. Evelyn and Elsa are still resting in the same spot. Through my binoculars, I can make out just a portion of Elsa´s face, pressed up against her mother´s fur. Both she and her mother have shifted slightly, though they remain tightly huddled. I love the way spider monkeys sleep. They tend to sit upright, hunch their backs and curl their limbs and tails, either around themselves and their resting partners. They then tuck their heads down, completing the transformation to an immobile, huddled mass of fur. When I did observations in the morning at Brookfield Zoo, there would usually be a small cluster of monkeys huddled in a quiet corner. Occasionally, Evita and Elvis would look up and whinny at me, and then tuck their heads back down.

On the frustrating side, the phone at the station hasn´t been working for a full week now, and it´s VERY frustrating. Some workers came down from the telephone company but they weren´t able to fix it. At least now they´ve identified the problem, but a replacement part is needed to fix it. I´m really hoping they will show up tomorrow with the new part and finally fix it. Everyone is getting sick of hearing me whine about how much i miss talking to my boyfriend, but it´s been a whole week! I can handle the long distance fine when we can talk regularly, but going a week without talking is about my limit.

Learning to ID monkeys

From June 13, 2010

Nearly every day we have spider monkeys that visit the station. Sometimes we’ll come back from the forest, and at the station, capuchins and spiders are at the station. There have been two mother-offspring pairs that have been regularly visiting. One pair is the golden female that I’ve named Ariadne, and her infant son Aaron (who, to the amusement of everyone here, I’ve named after my boyfriend). Aaron is an older infant, who travels dorsally on his mom most of the time, but has been making a few forays through the trees on his own. The other pair are Evelyn and Elsa—Evelyn is a large, dark reddish-brown female, with a dark face with markings that I call a “joker smile,” where, she has light markings on either side of her mouth that curl up a bit. Her daughter, Elsa, is a young juvenile-1, who seems to be locomoting most of the time on her own, but has occasionally snagged a ride on mom. Elsa has similar coloring to her mother, and she has a large pink patch around her mouth that curls up in the same “joker smile.” Most infants and younger juveniles have large pink patches around their mouths and eyes, and as they grow older they get more pigmented (by adulthood, some have completely darkened faces, whereas others retain some of the pink around their eyes and mouth).

For the most part, when I focus on identifying features, I start with color (the monkeys here range from golden blond to a deep reddish color to dark brown) and then I focus on “hair-do” and facial marking. Spiders tend to have either slight “cone-heads” or “cheek-fluff,” and then they sometimes have variation in pigmentation on their faces, or interesting facial markings like the ones I´ve described above. Something I really need to get better at is identifying individuals from their hind ends. I´ve heard the skin around the anogenital region, and the color and shape of their genitals as well, help with IDing, especially considering that´s usually the angle we see them at more often. I guess it need to get better at starting at monkey butts and genitals, instead of focusing on faces!

Fieldwork Begins

From June 7, 2010

This morning I was woken by the sound of capuchin vocalizations in the backyard. Because my current room has a window next to the bed that overlooks the yard, the capuchins were right by me. Though we didn’t go out today because we’re going to be heading to town to take care of a few errands, its nice to start out the day watching monkeys.

Overall, we’re off to a good start, although I know Aga and Katy are feeling very intimidated. Thus far, we’ve been running into spiders about twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon, but visiblity has been pretty tough. Just seeing individuals clearly enough to get age and sex categories down is proving challenging, and under those observation conditions, conducting focal follows and getting individual IDs

Nonetheless, I’m trying to remain optimistic. I have been able to identify one male, Dracula, who I’ve seen as a subadult four years ago, and have run into again two years ago. He’s easy to identify because he has these triangular markings above his eyes, giving him the appearance of a vampire-like hairline. I also remember that when I started my masters research, I worried that it would be impossible, but I managed to learn to individually recognize all the juvies and their moms, as well as a few other individuals. Furthermore, I did managed to collect 70 hours of focal data, and so with more time and hopefully a greater learning curve, things should improve. And though the visibility has been bad lately, I know that sometimes visibility is just impossible, but other times we do actually get to see the monkeys much more clearly.

It’s so nice to be back in the forest as well. We’ve been running into capuchins a lot, as well as some howlers, and the forest has been relatively dry, which makes the trails a bit more pleasant. The field station is a comfortable home-away-from-home, the food as been delicious, and with my phone card I’ve been able to talk to my boyfriend nearly every day. So thus far, though I am worried about getting the research underway, I’m happy and content in the field, and actually really glad to be down here. So thus far, I definitely think I’m off to a good start, and hope that as I get my “forest legs” back, we should start making headway towards IDing individuals and being able to start collecting data.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong...

We haven't even gotten to the field site yet, but our little research team has already been plagued with some major frustrations. I have two people joining me now, and one more that will be hear in a couple weeks--Katy, an undergrad who will be my summer assistant, and Aga and Jason, both masters students that will be conducting their own projects on the spiders while help me getting my project off the ground. Aga, Katy, and I were all supposed to fly from Chicago to San Jose yesterday, and leave for El Zota today. However, Aga's purse (containing both her passport and drivers license) was stolen in Chicago on Sunday. Since everything was closed on Memorial Day, she had to reschedule her flight a day later so that she could run around getting replacement documents on Tuesday. This also meant delaying our departure to El Zota by a day, so we could all go together.

Originally, Aga and Katy were on one flight, I was on another, and we were all going to meet up at the San Jose airport. However, since Katy would be without Aga, I was worried about find her at the airport in San Jose. However, I made a little sign with her name in bright pink pen, and waited for the hour after my flight (her flight was supposed to come in shortly after mine, but it was delayed) for her. When the Delta passengers were pouring out of customs (I was waiting with a few other people waiting to greet passengers on the flight, and their friends/family had all arrived), I was approached by a girl who cautiously peered at my sign, and then approached me. Katy? I asked, and she nodded. However, it was not until we got into a cab, and were just about the leave the airport, that we determined that SHE WAS NOT THE RIGHT PERSON (and her name was NOT Katy--despite her nod in the affirmative). She didn't have her glasses on, and thus didn't realize that she had read the sign wrong. Who would have thought? So at that point, we had to ask the cab driver to stop, let her and her stuff out, and he was annoyed, so I decided to continue on to the hotel and hope my assistant Katy would remember the hotel name and would get a cab. Unfortunately, she didn't know which hotel we were staying at, expected to meet me, and was really freaking out. She ended waiting at the airport for a very long time, at which point a nice man who worked at the airport gave her a ride to the Holiday Inn, where she was able to check her email and look up the correct hotel information. I feel this could have ended very badly, but luckily she made it here.

And now, today, my credit card has gone missing, either lost or stolen, I'm not sure. I used it earlier to pay for the second night of our hotel stay, and I'm SURE I put it back in my purse or wallet. I have my purse, have my wallet, but not that credit card. Luckily, my sister informs me that the fraud department had called my cell phone (she has my phone, and sent me an email). However, the stupid hotel phone hear won't accept phone cards, and requires paying with credit card so they can charge you exorbitantly, so right now I can't call to reach the credit card company and confirm that my card has gone missing.

Nonetheless, I feel like things aren't going so well for us (and this is on top of a lot of other minor hassles and frustrations). At least Katy and I had a good time visiting the zoo here in San Jose, which isn't too impressive, but actually has a decent spider monkey exhibit with a large group of beautiful spider monkeys. No matter how much anything else might go wrong, watching spider monkeys can always make us feel better.

Tomorrow we're off to the field station, where I will be cut off from internet (but will be able to have an easier time calling and receiving calls, which will be a relief). But then we can settle into the station, and get to work, and enjoy the beautiful forest.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fieldwork Anxiety

I'm leaving for Costa Rica to begin my 15 months of dissertation fieldwork in 1 week. And I'm freaking out. There is so much I still need to get done--supplies are still on order, still some field stuff I have to inventory and replace, grants I want to get done and give to my advisor so she can submit them when I'm in the field, and I need to get my apartment packed up and cleaned out and move my stuff. And I'm dealing with the stress of having to leave my boyfriend (and the pets) for all that time, which he's really not happy with. We will see each other in August, he come down to Costa Rica in January, but still, it's a long time to be apart, especially when I'll have very infrequent internet access, and have to share a phone with everyone at the field station.

It really is one of the ironic aspects of my dissertation--I'm studying the relationship between social relationships and stress, and that requires putting putting such strain on my social relationships that it causes tons of stress (and grad school and dissertation work provide enough stress on their own!). It really is such a hard thing about field primatology. Many of the people in my grad program do bioarch, osteology, and forensic arch., so often their fieldwork means going for shorter periods of time. And their research subjects stay put--they know what they are going to accomplish each day, instead of worrying about whether they will find their bones and how long it will be before they will abruptly speed away (the unfortunately thing about spider monkeys, when they decide to go, they GO--and depending on their travel path, its not always possible to follow them. They fly through the trees, but for the human trying to navigate the swamp, it can be impossible to keep up).

All that stress has cause me to up all night worrying, and then during the day its so hard to be productive to get everything done. I love my monkeys, I love the field, I look forward to those magical days in the rainforest watching monkeys and running into other animals (which, granted, are tempered by the miserable days when you can't find the monkeys, its raining nonstop, and you fall in the swamp) but sometimes the sad thing about doing research on what you love is that the joys of it can be eclipsed by all the work and stress and sacrifices that it requires.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Path of the Jaguar

Check out this video about jaguar corridors in Costa Rica!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Devra Kleiman was a great conservation hero

Devra Kleiman, one of the most inspiring conservation heroes EVER, passed away a couple day of ago. Dr. Kleinman was a pioneer in captive animal behavioral research and in conservation biology, and it is largely due to her legacy that a strong relationship exists between the two. She really is the reason that golden lion tamarins are not extinct; they are the only primate species I know of that has improved their conservation status (from critically endangered to endangered). GLT's are not out of the woods yet (or, more accurately, back into the rainforest); they are still endangered. BUT, due to Dr. Kleinman and her colleagues, they are still there, both in captivity and in the wild. And thanks to their efforts, there is now a very effective net of conservation awareness and efforts focused on conserving them.

When Dr. Kleiman first began her work with the National Zoo in the 1970s, golden lion tamarins were not successfully breeding. Unfortunately, no one realized that they did not live in multi-male/multi-female groups in the wild. Dr. Kleinman and her colleagues' research led to the conclusion that they should be housed in pairs, and once that change was put into effect, GLTs became calmer, bonded, and began producing offspring.

From there, Dr. Kleiman and her colleagues performed a series of conservation miracles. They persuaded zoos to work together, in order to forge breeding exchanges to maintain genetic diversity. They then persuaded zoos to hand over ownership to the Brazilian government, and then take select breeding groups down to Brazil, put them through "How to live in the wild" bootcamp, and reintroduce the captive-born families into the wild. These attempts were not without setbacks; in the early years of the program, many captive-borns struggled in the wild, and did not survive for very long. But Kleiman's team kept trying to improve their efforts, and began performing "soft releases" in which the released animals were monitored and supported/protected when necessary. Thanks to these changes, things improved. Captive-borns still struggled with living the wild, but with support, they were able to live long enough to raise offspring, and the wild-born offspring were far more successful than their zoo-born parents. As a result, the population started increasing. Furthermore, a successful local and international conservation awareness campaign ensured that further steps were taken to protect existing forests, plant corridors, and raise local awareness. The golden lion tamarin is one of conservation's big success stories, and its legacy has influenced captive animal husbandry and welfare, reintroduction programs, and field conservation programs.

In short, this woman was a hero, and is a huge inspiration for me. If I achieve half of what she achieved in her lifetime, I will consider my life a huge success. She didn't do it alone; she had a team of colleagues that all actively made the GLT reintroduction and other projects a success. However, she was essentially the person that started the entire process, and kept going and persuading others to collaborate, cooperate, and contribute to making it happen. I hope the fields of primatology, zoo behavioral research, and conservation biology always remember her legacy.

For more information, see:

Kleinman's Washington Post Obituary

NPR's Remembering Devra Kleiman

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I just discovered this video on National Geographic about a pet monkey transitioning to sanctuary life at Jungle Friends. It features a few cameos from some old monkey friends of mine (Puchi! and Udi, who I knew as a little guy!), as well as my human friend Erin!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The efficacy of zoo education: empirical evidence

Here, I want to outline the results of the study on assessing the education impacts of visiting zoos by Falk and colleagues (2007). This is the study that has been heralded by the AZA and various AZA facilities, but has come under critique for methodological drawbacks and overextending claims based on its results. The full document can be accessed at the AZA page on visitors and public research.

This study examined the following questions (Falk et. al, 2007:5-6):

• How do aquariums and zoos contribute to people’s personal and emotional connections to animals and their conservation?
• How do zoos and aquariums contribute to the ways people act and behave toward animals?
• How do we increase these impacts? What do we do that is successful?
• Who are our visitors?

They examined these questions in a visitor-tracking study at two zoos and two aquariums. Visitors were randomly approached by researchers as they entered the zoo, and were asked if they would be willing to participate in the study. One adult from each consenting group were then asked to fill out a pre-visit survey on conservation knowledge and motivation for the visit. When they were done with their visit, they then approached the researcher to identify which exhibits they visited, their path through the zoo, and to answer interview questions. A random sample of those visitors that provided contact information were later contacted via phone or email and questioned about what they recalled from that visit and its impact on their knowledge and attitudes. Falk and colleagues (2007:9-10) summary of their results area as follows:

Visitors arrive at zoos and aquariums with specific identity-related motivations and these motivations directly impact how they conduct their visit and what meaning they make from the experience.

Overall, visitors bring with them a higher-than-expected knowledge about basic ecological concepts. A small percentage group of visitors (approximately 10%)
did show significant changes in their conservation-related knowledge. However because of the higher than expected entering knowledge of most visitors, there were no statistically significant changes in overall knowledge.

Most visitors (61%) found that their zoo and aquarium experience supported and reinforced their values and attitudes towards conservation. Visits to accredited zoos and aquariums prompted many individuals (54%) to reconsider their role in environmental problems and conservation action, and to see themselves as part of the solution.

Roughly half (42%) of all visitors believed that zoos and aquariums play an important role in conservation education and animal care. A majority (57%) of visitors said that their visit experience strengthened their connection to nature.

While their results are encouraging, Marino and colleagues (2010) critique their conclusions, citing methodological flaws. Based on their assessment, they conclude that the AZA and its associated institutions make claims based on Falk and colleagues (2007) study that go beyond its findings. They contend that they study was not designed in a way that provided adequate opportunity to falsify their hypotheses. Furthermore, they critique the methodology on a number of levels, including the selection bias of participants (participants that agreed to participate may have different attitudes about zoos and conservation than those that choose not to participate), and the response bias that may emerge from asking participants to reflect on their beliefs. Furthermore, Marino and colleagues (2010) note that Falk and colleagues's (2007) study never assessed attitudes that may have worsened as a result of their visit (for example, increased perception of animals as objects of entertainment).

Marino and colleagues (2010) stress that the aim of their paper is not to critique the AZA's education efforts; rather, they hope that their critique will encourage new studies examining the impact of zoos on visitors that are methodologically stronger.

Given that Falk and colleagues (2007) study remains the best attempt to assess zoos impact on visitors, it seems that it provides some evidence that, for at least a subset of zoo-goers, visiting the zoo strengthened their interest in conservation and may have prompted them to consider how they can contribute to conservation efforts. However, these visitors may be those that are already somewhat knowledgeable about animals and conservation, and their visits may just be reaffirming beliefs and attitudes that they already hold. However, what about the rest of visitors? How might those who choose not to participate be different? And what about the 39% of participants who didn't feel their visit reinforced their conservation attitudes? And the 46% who didn't feel their visit prompted a reconsideration of their personal impact on the environment and conservation efforts? Or, more troubling, what about the 58% of participants who didn't believe that zoos play an important role in conservation and animal care?

It is apparent to me from my reading of these two studies that the jury is still out on how a visit to the zoo impacts its visitors. Furthermore, I suspect that the impacts are a mixed bag: for those that visit the zoo with a strong prior interest in animals, nature, and conservation, a trip to the zoo might reaffirm their beliefs and interests. However, for visitors who take a trip to the zoo as a means of amusement and entertainment, it is unclear whether they leave the zoo with any greater understanding of the animals or larger conservation goals. Furthermore, I suspect that the biggest educational impact that zoos have is on children: I think studies that specifically examine how a visit to the zoo influences a child's knowledge, beliefs, and attitude is crucial to understanding whether zoos are meeting their education goals.


Falk,JH,Reinhard,EM,Vernon,CL,Bronnenkant,K,Deans,NL Heimlich, JE.2007. Why Zoos &
Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Silver Spring, MD.

Marino, L, Lilienfeld, SO, Malamud, R, Nobis, N, Broglio, R. 2010. Do zoos and aquariums promote attitude change in visitors? A critical evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium study. Society and Animals 18: 126-138.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Zoo goals: Conservation, Education, and Research

Before I discuss the results of recent studies on the efficacy of zoos/aquariums on visitor education, I would like to briefly outline some of the focuses and potential outcomes on each of these three goals.

Zoos aim to meet conservation goals through several means.

1)Zoos are often considered as a "biological ark," that can maintain a population of animals that may be declining in captivity. Thus, their goals are, ostensibly, to maintain a captive population to prevent total extinction, as well as to provide a source population for re-introductions. However, there are some obstacles to achieving these goals. The small populations are at risk for inbreeding. Though zoos usually carefully manage breeding with the goal of maintaining genetic diversity, they may be constrained by the amount of genetic variability within the existing captive population, as well as space constraints that limit the amount of animals that can be maintained within the zoo system (for the US, this would be the AZA). Furthermore, while there have been some succesful reintroduction projects, reintroduction is difficult to do (especially for primates and other social animals). This may be because animals may be have lost crucial survival skills, or because of the risks of introducing disease to wild populations.

2)Coordinating and funding field conservation efforts. This is probably the most crucial contribution that zoos make toward conservation. By raising money for field conservation, and funding field projects (or in some cases, coordinating field projects themselves, for example, see Lincoln Park Zoo's conservation projects). In particular, I am a big fan of zoo exhibits that provide a link between their captive animals and their habitat in the wild, and specifically encourage donations toward that end.

1)Zoos seek to educate the general public through informing visitors about conservation crises, and inspiring them to care enough to become involved through donations or other means. Furthermore, they provide education material on specific animals and habitats, to increase visitor's knowledge base about animals and their habitats. Ultimately, the idea is that if people feel a connection or empathy for the animals, they will feel motivated to take greater efforts toward supporting conservation, through moderating their environmental impact, participating in local conservation efforts, and donations to field conservation funds. This is particularly important for children, as they often spear-head family changes--for example, the recycling movement largely grew through schools developing recycling programs, and educating children on the importance of recycling; the kids in turn, encouraged their parents to recycle. Children also represent the next generation of potential conservationists.

1) Zoo populations provide opportunities for many different avenues of research. In particular, the genetic research and management of small populations is crucial for maintaining genetic diversity of zoo populations themselves. However, this research is also helpful in learning to manage and conserve diversity in wild populations, that are often increasingly fragmented and isolated.

2)They provide observation and sampling opportunities for topics that may not be feasible in the wild (for example, projects that require close-range observation, or fecal sampling that may not be possible in the wild--for example, fecal samples collected from the spider monkeys at Brookfield Zoo before and after a stressful experience-a vet exam-are essential to my pilot research).

3)Finally, zoo research is crucial in monitoring the welfare and health of the animal themselves, and in making modifications to promote welfare.

However, while a number of zoos have active research programs, I think that they are often an untapped and underutilized resource. Unfortunately though, gaining permission to conduct research at zoos (even just observational research from public observation areas--gaining access to non-public areas or fecal samples can be even more challenging), often requires jumping through hoops, or having connections within the zoo. This varies widely, but some zoos are not that supportive of facilitating outsider research (as with jobs in the zoo world, having connections within the zoo world often makes a difference).

Happy Earth Day!

In honor of Earth Day, I thought I share a couple pictures from my beautiful forest. The first is of a female spider monkey feeding, and the second is the roots of my favorite ficus tree. Both represent some of the beauty and wonder of the rainforests that we need to conserve. Over the time that I have been doing research in Costa Rica, the status of black-handed (also known as Central American) spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) has declined from vulnerable to endangered. This is likely due to the reduction of habitat, because spider monkeys need large tracts of forest, and are one of the indicators of a large, healthy forest (the forests, in turn rely on spider monkeys for the dispersal of seeds). We need to intensify efforts to conserve and protect tropical forest habitats, if we want to continue to live in a world that can sustain these, and other, beautiful animals in the wild.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Serious monkey business

Click here for a very eloquent explanation of why primates are both fascinating and important to study. Serious Monkey Business is definitely a blog to keep checking out!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Do zoos accomplish their goals?

Marc Bekoff's blog at Psychology Today has a post entitled Zoos and Aquariums do not accomplish what they claim to do. He brings up the issue that animals living in captivity often live compromised lives, and notes that African elephants have shorter lifespans in captivity versus the wild. He addresses a study conducted by the AZA that concluded that zoos were succeeding in their education goals, as well a study critiquing it's conclusions based on methodological issues.

There's a lot of complex issues raised in Bekoff's post that I'd like to address, but unfortunately I'm just about to head off to the AAPAs, so I don't have time. I also have not had a chance to read either of these studies, which I would like to to do. Nonetheless, since it brings up a lot of topics I'd like to tackle in the near, I'd like to outline some of the questions raised, which I hope to explore in future posts.

First, underlying Bekoff's post is the issue of whether it is ethical to keep the animals in captivity. This is an important issue in itself, and it's one I would like to examine in more detail. This, of course, is dependent on 1) the conditions of captivity (which can vary largely), 2) the health and welfare of the animals (which also will vary largely by species), and 3) the benefits of captivity (ie,in this case whether zoos are achieving their goals).

To address the health and welfare of captive animals, in my next post(s), I'd like to examine these questions in detail using two examples, African elephants and spider monkeys (surprise, surprise). While I was originally tempted to use "primates" as a broader category, there's so much variation (consider the space, enrichment, and social requirements needed for chimpanzees, vs. marmosets) that it's probably best just to focus on what I know best, and perhaps just comment how the situation may vary for other primates.

Second, Bekoff's posts is particularly addressing whether zoos are achieving their goals. While his post, and the two studies mentioned, both focus on education, I think we should also consider the other goals of zoos and aquariums: research, conservation, and, (arguably) entertainment. How important are each of these goals? And how are zoos successfully achieving these goals, or how are they falling short of them?

While I hope to address those questions in another post, for now, I'd like to raise some questions to my readers:

1) Do you believe that it is justified to keep wild animals in zoos and aquariums? Do your opinions vary based on taxa considered, or which goals are being achieved?
2) Do you feel that zoos have educated you or otherwise influence you?
3) Out of the three main zoo goals (education, conservation, research), how well do you think zoos address each of these? Are there any particular successes or shortcomings that you are aware of?
4) How does entertainment fit into these goals, and how important is this a consideration? If zoogoers go do the zoo as a recreational activity, are they get anything out of it?

I personally feel that zoos have played an important role in influencing my decision to pursue primatology, my education as a primatologist/behavioral endocrinologist, and in providing opportunities for my own research. Nonetheless, I do think the health and welfare of the animals in captivity should be a top priority, and if zoos cannot provide an adequate environment for a given taxa, we need to reconsider whether it is ethical to keep those animals in captivity. Furthermore, I think that zoos have lofty goals, but we need to critically examine how well they are achieving them, and question if they are really fulfilling their mission. But most importantly, I think that we need to examine these issues, and then, address the hard part: if they are falling short, how can this be remedied? What are the best solutions?

And on that note, I'm off to New Mexico. I'm hoping to visit the Rio Grande Zoo while I'm there, and I'll keep ruminating on these questions while I'm there.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Grooming, group size, and feeding priority in female Rhesus macaques

(Photo by James Warwick/Getty Images. On the left is Esther, on the right is Terry, and they were two of my favorite focal animals ever!)

Here is the abstract of the poster I am currently working on for the AAPAs:

Grooming, group size, and feeding priority in female Rhesus macaques
M.A. Rodrigues¹, D.L. Hannibal²

The social brain hypothesis predicts that larger groups require greater investment in allogrooming for social cohesion. It has been suggested that low-ranking individuals allogroom to gain tolerance from high-ranking individuals for access to food resources. Here, we report on data collected from twenty-eight adult female rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. Contrary to the social brain hypothesis predictions, we found that individuals in large groups (10.3%) do not invest more time in grooming than individuals in small groups (13.6%) (F=1.302, p=0.263). Furthermore, time spent allogrooming does not explain access to food resources among middle- and low-ranking females (F=0.403; p=0.533), nor does the interaction of group size and grooming (F=0.032; p=0.859), the interaction of rank and grooming (F=0.005, p=0.943), or the interaction of group size, rank, and grooming (F=2.684; p=0.118). The interaction of group size and rank was significant (F=6.123, p=0.022). Removing grooming from the model, however, negates the significance of the group size and rank interaction. The benefits of membership in a large group outweigh the disadvantages of increased intragroup competition for low-ranking individuals. In smaller groups, however, low-ranking individuals are constrained by both intergroup and intragroup competition. Furthermore, grooming does not appear to offset the disadvantages of low rank or small group size. While increasing group size and rank improve access to food resources, and the contribution of grooming for tolerance was not significant in this study, further investigation on the role of grooming in the complex dynamics of intergroup and intragroup competition for food resource is warranted.

Round-up of interesting posts

There's some great posts/news articles I've seen recently that I wanted to highlight.

--Seeing Race's discussion of Belief in Racial Equality and the American Dream

--Laelaps dicussion of Hyena Laughs

--Hug the Monkey's post on Mothering more Essential than Food

--UIUC's Lab of Evolutionary Endocrinology (I have lab envy! wish it existed back when I was an undergrad there!) has a fantastic post on Premenstrual Syndrome

--BeastApe links to a great story on Baboons raid wine grapes farms in South Africa

--Prancing Papio's discussion of Shifts in Mating Systems in Snub-nosed Monkeys

Friday, March 19, 2010

In Defense of Primatology

Do you think that primatology is all about cute fuzzy-wuzzy animals? Look at the above picture. That's a picture of me with a nice dollop of howler monkey feces on my head. Cute, right?

This post is in part of reaction to a blog post entitled "Why I am not a primatologist" by PalMD over at ScienceBlogs, and because I was rather offended by it, I feel I need to address some misconceptions about what primatologists do, and WHY we do it.

There's a general misunderstanding that, because we study cute, charismatic animals that share a lot of similarities with us (not surprisingly, because we ARE part of this taxonomic group), our science is somehow less valid or relevant. Or that our results and conclusions are questionable, because we must be completely swayed by our narcissistic attachment to anything cute and human-like. We are assumed to be unreasonably biased by anthropomorphic interpretations and bonds with our study animals (either generally, to the species/taxa, or to individual animals). This assumption is summed up quite well by the term "monkey huggers."

Now first, let me start out by saying, I'm probably the most cute-oriented person you will ever come across, and I'm sure that comes across in my posts. I think many primates, particularly spider monkeys, are cute and charming. I find baby animals of all kinds adorable, and am a huge fans of websites such as zooborns and LOLcats. Looking at cute pictures or videos, or interacting with cute animals (or children) are generally a great way for me to deal with stress (probably because the oxytocin response to this adorable stimuli dampens my normally high stress levels).

BUT, quite honestly, that has NOTHING to do with why I STUDY primates. If my goal was to spend time watching and cuddling something cute and furry, I could very easily stay home with my foster dog and cats (instead of leaving them, my boyfriend, and my friends to spend over a year in an isolated, swampy, mosquito-infest rainforest). Or if I wanted to turn that motivation into a career, I could spend much more time interacting with cute and furry animals if I worked at an animal shelter or as a veterinarian.

The reason I study primates is because they are a fascinating group of socially and cognitive complex animals, and because studying them (our closest relatives) can provide insight into the evolution of aspects of these traits--which can help us to understand the evolutionary pressures that shaped our own species. Since I'm interested in the evolution of social bonds and relationships, primate social structures are great systems for studying these topics.

And I haven't been a "monkey person" my whole life. My first favorite animals were cheetahs. And by age 8, I had decided I wanted to study social development and vocalizations in humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins. My interest in primates did not develop until my sophomore-junior years of college, and have a lot to do with the courses I was taking in psychology, biology, and philosophy. In particular, my interest was piqued by the fact that ethical arguments regarding the treatments of primates (as well as other animals) were governed by assumptions of what these animals were cognitively and emotionally capable of, rather than the most recent research on these topics.

Furthermore, I've already addressed the issue of anthropomorphism previously. What I find baffling is why those of us that have spent the most time reading the literature as well as actually studying primates are assumed to be unreasonably biased, yet those that criticize us for anthropomorphism are assumed to be unbiased. First, the best thing you can do is too look at the actual data that primatologists are yielding, and see if it supports their conclusions. Second, its interesting that it seems to me that those that are most strongly against anthropomorphism (or, more accurately, attributing non-human animals with cognitive and emotional capabilities that are more impressive or complex than our previous assumptions), seem to have a strong bias toward using non-human animals, including primates, in invasive medical research. While that is an ethical question that is far too complex for me to address in this post, let me just say that I think the most reasonable way of guiding our ethical guidelines should be our most informed knowledge about the cognitive and emotional abilities of the animals in question.

PalMD states:

"Since mind is a brain-dependent phenomenon, there are often anatomic correlates to our behaviors, and even to our beliefs, but since other animals do not utilize complex language, we will never know if they have "beliefs" which correlate with behavior or anatomy. We don't really understand what it means for a human to have post-traumatic stress disorder, so when we say that an elephant has it, there is no way to know if that set of behaviors is anything like our own experiences."

We can't ask them, but there are a number of very sophisticated experiments that can be used to understand "beliefs" that are being used with both non-human primates as well as infants (for example, there are many studies that use gaze length in response to "normal" and "abnormal" scenarios--individuals stare longer at results that surprise them, such as suspension of gravity). However, the contexts in which we can use such methods can be challenging, because experimental set-ups are often limited to captive studies (although there are some brilliant field studies out there as well). As for say, post-traumatic stress, I would say, if the animal exhibits similar kinds of distress behavior (for example, extreme startle response, extreme anxiety, self-directed or stereotypic behaviors, avoidance of stimuli associated with the past trauma) in conjunction with similar physiological patterns (such as elevated cortisol concentrations), then I think it would be parsimonious to conclude that the experiences are likely very similar.

Nonetheless, I do think that there are some reasonable objections to the kinds of data that we get within primatology, particularly field primatology. Behavioral data is messy, and isn't ever going to be as clear-cut as other types of data. Physiological data is challenging too, when you are measuring hormones from fecal samples instead of blood, in very uncontrolled conditions. Sample sizes tend to be small, and getting data at all is VERY labor-intensive (have you ever spent any time trying to follow a quick-moving monkey through a swamp? It's not easy). So unfortunately, to build up data, it takes a while, and usually requires collaborative effort or compiling the conclusions of many studies.

But at the same time, it's important. Studying primates allows us to investigate certain selective pressures in the environments in which they evolved. Furthermore, because so many primates are threatened, it is crucial that we study them, because just the act of conducting research allows us to monitor and protect populations, and our findings may be applicable to conservation efforts (as well as efforts in improving captive welfare and reproduction).

Finally, I also want to address that often we take advantage of the cute and charismatic aspects of our study animals, as well as their similarities and relation to us, in efforts to raise awareness and interest in conservation. The truth is that highlighting these aspects are often one of the most successful ways of generating interest in the animals and their habitat, which is crucial to conservation efforts. And if you haven't noticed, primates are severely threatened. That alone, I think, is justification enough for posting as many cute monkey pictures as I can find.

Baby Squirrel Monkey!

Head to Zooborns to read the full story on this adorable new addition to the Edmonton Valley Zoo.

Friday, March 12, 2010


My dissertation project focuses on some aspects of stress, obviously. This is slightly ironic, because grad school, my project, fieldwork, and life in general all are quite good at showering me with stress.

I'm about two months away from my starting my fieldwork, and quite honestly, I'm starting to view it with dread. This is a shame, because I love the forest, I love my monkeys, and its been a couple years since I've been there (my field last field trip was two months in the summer of 2008). But, there's just some much to worry about before I can leave. Getting the financial stuff in order to take care of all that is necessary. Finishing up some unfinished projects, including the pilot project, that have been delayed by financial challenges, manuscript rejections, and some technical problems. About a month ago, my hard drive died. Luckily, my heroes at Microcenter were able to recover all my files, and put in a new hard drive, but because I have data, proposals, manuscripts, all sorts of stuff divided between the external harddrive, this new harddrive, and even my old laptop, I haven't been able to get things organized yet. And I still haven't re-installed SPSS, which means some data analysis I had been working on months ago isn't even accessible right now on this computer.

And if that weren't enough, I'm at the end of wrapping a quarter of teaching a new course. BUT, unfortunately, the flash drive I store ALL my teaching powerpoints, as well as other stuff, seems to have a mechanical failure. I've managed to deal with what's necessary to keep on top of my current class, (mostly), but what's sad is I've lost of teaching materials (including my lectures for Intro to Physical Anthropology, which after teaching six consecutive sections, have been refined to near-perfection). I still has some incomplete and older versions of some of that stuff, but not the most updated.

And then there's been some violent events on campus that have quite honestly shaken me a bit more than I thought they would. Two weeks ago, a girl was raped on campus at 8:45 on a Tuesday evening, right outside the building next to where the Anthro dept. is located. And to put that in perspective, I teach an evening class, Tuesdays and Thursdays, and less than an hour and half before that incident, I was standing just 50 m down from where the attack happened, waiting for my boyfriend to pick me up. And then just last Tuesday, there was a shooting on campus. It happened early in the morning (I think around 3 am?), and involved a maintenance worker who had received a poor work evaluation and was about to lose his job. He shot two colleagues, and then himself.

I know violent events happen all over--I've known that campuses are not always safe places, and I've taken two sessions of the RAD (Rape Aggression Defense) self-defense courses that are taught by campus police. And this weeks shooting is clearly not the first of university shootings. But this time, it's hit a bit close to home.

And finally, there's some odd drama with some people and situations involved with my field site. I'm not sure what's going on, and I don't know how serious it is, or if it's gonna affect my research, but it is worrying me.

So that's some of what's been affecting me lately. I've been increasingly up all night, unable to sleep, because I keep on stressing about things, or getting up in the middle of the night to work on stuff because I'm mentally running through it. But nonetheless, I've been feeling exhausted and worn out, and still feel like I'm not quite on top of everything.

At least all the reading I do about stress has made me aware of the importance of coping mechanisms, and right now I'm very greatful for the some of the social support I have from my boyfriend, friends, and pets. I think it's time to go cuddle with one of my kitties and see if some nice oxytocin rushes can calm my stress responses.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

New baby bonobo!

There's a new baby bonobo at the Columbus Zoo! The baby's mom is Susie, who I personally think is one of the most beautiful bonobos I've ever seen. In the video, you can see Susie with her new baby--there's also someone to the side, grooming Susie's arm. I'm not sure who it is, but I would suspect that it is Lola, Susie's juvie daughter.

I can't wait to go see how they're all doing!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Stress and sociality in a patrilocal primate: Do female spider monkeys tend and befriend?

Welcome to my dissertation research! I defended my proposal last week, and I realize I haven't shared too much about my project yet. So, for starters, here's the abstract from my proposal!

Stress is an adaptive strategy that mobilizes the body for acute physical challenges. However, chronic stress has detrimental effects that can reduce health and reproductive fitness. Thus, coping mechanisms are valuable in reducing chronic stress. One such mechanism, the “tend-and-befriend” strategy, refers to affiliation between females as an adaptive strategy to deal with stress. This mechanism is proposed to be a widespread strategy throughout the primate order, and one that underlies patterns of female bonding in humans. Although this strategy has been documented in matrilineal primates characterized by female kinship bonds, there has not been documentation of this strategy among unrelated females. Such documentation is necessary to demonstrate that this strategy is unrelated to female philopatry. Since our hominid ancestors are presumed to be male-philopatric, examining if this strategy applies to unrelated females is essential to understanding the evolutionary context of this mechanism. Here, I propose to examine the tend-and-befriend strategy in a species characterized by fission-fusion social organization and female dispersal. I will examine the patterns of female-female social relationships, male aggression, and ecological variables on glucocorticoid concentrations, a measure of physiological stress, among female black-handed spider monkeys. I predict that strong female social relationships, regardless of relatedness, will be associated with low glucocorticoid levels. Behavioral, hormonal, genetic, and ecological data will be collected in a wild, habituated community. This research has direct implications for understanding the evolution of the stress-response, and whether bonding among unrelated females is a result of ancestral tendencies within the primate order or a more derived feature limited to certain taxa.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Almost half of all primate species are threatened

There's a new IUCN report out on the most endangered primates. This includes the variegated spider monkey (Ateles hybridus), pictured above.

Here are the top 25 most endangered, by region:

Greater Bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus)
Gray-headed Lemur (Eulemur cinereiceps)
Sclater’s Black Lemur/Blue-Eyed Black Lemur ( Eulemur flavifrons)
Northern sportive lemur (Lepilemur septentrionalis)
Silky Sifaka (Propithecus candidus)

Rondo Dwarf Galago (Galagoides rondoensis)
Roloway Guenon (Cercopithecus diana roloway)
Tana River Red Colobus (Procolobus rufomitratus)
Niger Delta Red Colobus Monkey (Procolobus epieni)
Kipunji Rungwecebus kipunji
Cross River Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli)

Siau Island Tarsier (Tarsius tumpara)
Javan Slow Loris (Nycticebus javanicus)
Simakobu or Pig-Tailed Snub-Nose Langur (Simias concolor)
Delacour’s Langur (Trachypithecus delacouri)
Golden-headed Langur or Cat Ba Langur (Trachypithecus p. poliocephalus)
Western Purple-faced Langur Trachypithecus (Semnopithecus vetulus nestor)
Grey-shanked Douc Monkey (Pygathrix cinerea)
Tonkin Snub-nosed Monkey (Rhinopithecus avunculus)
Eastern Black Crested Gibbon (Nomascus nasutus)
Western Hoolock Gibbon (Hoolock hoolock)
Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii)

Central and South America
Cotton-top Tamarin (Saguinus oedipus)
Variegated or Brown Spider Monkey (Ateles hybridus)
Peruvian Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey (Oreonax flavicauda)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Fertility, Reproduction, and Women in Academia

I've been away from blogging for a bit due to some computer problems (ie, my hard drive died, I was without my laptop for a week, and now I'm still trying to get all the necessary files and software re-loaded on the new hard-drive). I'm still slogging through a new course, and have scheduled my proposal defense for a few weeks from now, so I'll probably not be posting much for this month.

Anyway, there are a couple things I wanted to post about. One is some thoughts about my upcoming fieldwork, but I'll hopefully write that sometime soon. However, right now, I'm thinking of several things I've read recently, that all seem to intersect around the issue of reproduction and fertility, and how that intersects with women's lives.

First, the aol news that pops up whenever my computer signs into AIM (which it does automatically) was kind enough to inform me of a headline to the effects of "90% of women's usable eggs gone by 30." Not the most reliable source, but really not something I would like to hear, given that I definitely won't be any position to consider having kids until I'm in my 30s. Next, I read a post over at Isis the Scientist about post-docs, and a comment about how lengthening post-docs delay the start of stable academic employment (ie, a tenure-track position). Given that most of us finish graduate school in the late 20s or early 30s (or later), the timing of post-docs and attaining economic and career stability (if that every happens), is very inconveniently timed for women's lifecycles. And then, finally, I read a post at Aardvarchaeology, in which it was suggested that the best way to reduce your environmental footprint and reduce population is to not reproduce/limit how many children you have.

Anyway, all of these things are hitting me at a time when I am considering how extremely completely incongruent female biology is with an academic life. While I care deeply about the world's overpopulation crisis, I also understand, but personally, and from an anthropological perspective, how crucial motherhood, and the possibility of motherhood, is to a woman's life. It is, in many ways, what defines female-ness, it is what the female neuroendocrine system is pulling to do, and it is a deeply personal choice that effects how an individual women will define herself in relation to her family, her community, her legacy and contribution to the world. For that reason, I think it is something that must be a viable option to women, and perhaps even a right.

In my global perspectives on human health class, we discussed the issue of access to fertility treatments for women in developing in countries. On one hand, it seems counterproductive to provide these options, when our world is overpopulated. On the other hand, an article we read (this was a couple years ago, so I don't remember what it was called or too many details) described the challenges Egyptian women faced when they were unable to have children. If a women cannot have a child, it effects how her husband, family, and community perceive her, and increases the risk that her husband will divorce her to remarry a younger, more fertile women. In that perspective, I can see how access to new reproductive technology could change women's lives, and how the option to have children can be seen as a right.

That said, the situation is a bit different, politically and culturally, for women in the U.S. Nontheless, the lack of adequate maternal/paternal leave and childcare options, plus the stigmatizing effects it has on career trajectories, creates a cultural and political environment when the option to have children is stifled. It still is an option, and it's one that many women pursue, but there seems to be definite pressure against it in the US. And, most importantly, this pressure largely falls on women. While men also have to make compromises to have children, it does not affect their career prospects or earning potential in the same way, nor does it as strongly affect how individual women are perceived both academically and culturally.

Anyway, my point is, I think we should recognize the importance of children in people's lives, particularly for women. And I'm thinking about this a lot, because I would really like to have children at some point. However, when I think about how all of anthropological training and research affects how I would want raise my children, it also goes very much against my career aspirations. And while this might be less of an issue in Canada or Sweden or Denmark or any other current with greater support with healthcare, maternal leave, and childcare options, in the US, I feel it is a big concern for women in American academic careers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Spider monkey allomothering at Zoo Basel!

Zooborns has some adorable pictures with an equally-adorable story: In late December, a female spider monkey, Quilimari, gave birth to an infant, but due to birth complications, was too weak to care for her infant. However, while zoo vets cared for mom, the baby's older sister, Dicha (who is a young adult), took care of the infant. Most surprisingly, she somehow was able to nurse the baby... I wonder how long it took for her to lactate, and what hormonal processes might have triggered that... But the good news is, Dicha took good care of her little brother, and once Quilimari was well, Dicha returned the infant to her.

It's nice to hear a story like this--too often, there are stories about how an infant cannot be taken care of by the mother (due to birth complications, illness, rejection...), and in too many cases, those poor babies end up being hand-reared. It's great to hear that a competent alloparent was able to step in, and that the infant has been successfully reunited with her mom--with a great allomother nearby that is eager to help out.

Above is the picture of the infant. You can read the story and see more pictures at Zooborns: Dutiful Daughter Cares for New Baby Brother.

Some interesting reading...

There's a lot of interesting stuff out there to read, and it's kind of dangerous! I intend to work on lectures, and then somehow get caught up reading blogs and news articles... So I thought I'd share them before I (hopefully) get to work on those lectures.

First, check out Fourth Stone Hearth, #84, The Gratuitous Gelada Edition, at A Primate of Modern Aspect. You really can't go wrong with interesting anthro readings, especially when there's beautiful geladas in their midst.

Next, head to the NY Times, where you can read Deciphering the Chatter of Monkeys and Chimps. I'm really exciting that some of the exciting new developments in primate vocalization research is getting this sort of media attention.

Finally, if you have a chance, head over to Time, and read Why Your DNA isn't your Destiny, for an accessible explanation of epigenetics and maternal effects.

Happy Reading!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Home is where the hearth is

The presence of a hearth and organization of living space has been found in an Israeli archaeological site dated to about 790,000 ya. It's not certain who used this site--the tools are Acheulian, but no hominid skeletal material are present. It's possible that the site's users were Homo erectus or a transitional Homo species.

Nonetheless, what is exciting about this site is that these early humans controlled fire, producing a variety of tools, ate a diverse balanced diet, and came home to an organized living space. Two major activity areas were found: one was the site of the majority of flint-knapping, fish processing, and the use of chopping tools (based on the fish processing, I'd suggest that this was the place where the "dirty work" took place). At the hearth, an anthropogenic center of controlled fire, nuts were processed, and basalt and limestone-knapping occurred (as well as some flint-knapping).

What's also interesting is that plant and animal remains provide some insight into their diet and ranging patterns. While the living site was near a lake, in a fairly wet environment, there are plant materials from drier woodlands some distance away. Additionally, there several kind of nuts, including oak acorn and water chestnuts, that were probably roasted and eaten. Other plants food included the fruits of olives and white grapevine, and the leaves of wild beet and holy thistle. As for food remains, their aquatic prey included freshwater turtles and carp, while their terrestrial prey included fallow deer, elephants, and other mammals.

Overall, this site gives us a picture of what these ancient hominids ate, and how they lived. Furthermore, it provides evidence that they did control and use fire. Finally, the spatial organization, with distinct areas for different activities, suggests cognitive sophistication that would require communication between different group members and may also be reflective of a division of labor.

Furthermore, the presence of a hearth and spatial organization suggests that this wasn't just a living site, but a real "home" for the hominids that lived there--did Homo erectus have a concept of "home" that is similar to our own? Did they gather around the hearth every night to eat, work, and socialize? Picturing them doing so makes them seem even more "human-like" to me.

Although this article might be a bit dense for my students, it's short and pretty interesting, so I think I'm going to give it to them as one of their outside readings.

Reference: Spatial Organization of Hominin Activities at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel.2009. Nira Alperson-Afil, et. al, Science 326: 1677-1680.DOI: 10.1126/science.1180695

Thursday, January 7, 2010

So this is the new year...

Due to holiday craziness and the start of a new course, I've been behind on posting. However, in the upcoming months, I will be defending my proposal and preparing to start my dissertation research, so I'll probably be writing about that in the near future. As I work on course prep for my current course (World Prehistory), I'm also going to try to post some material related to that(hopefully that might help me with preparing my lectures!).

Anyway, Karina at Ruminations from an Aspiring Ecologist published a brief assessment of her year in review, and I was inspired to the same. Until I thought about it, I hadn't realized how much I had actually accomplished in 2009. So despite feeling like I've been a slacker for most of the year (well, since taking my comps in May), I've actually done quite a lot!

Here's my 2009 year in review:

1) Finished all my coursework!
2) Took and passed candidacy exams!
3) Had a paper on Tool Use in Spider Monkeys published in Primates!
4) Applied for 9 grants (though I was rejected from quite a few)
5) Received $22,000 in grant funding ($20,000 from Wenner-Gren, $2,000 from OSU's Alumni Grant.
6) Met the greatest guy ever :)
7) Took in a foster dog and two new kitties, as well as a little corn snake.
8) Attended 4 weddings that were a great chance to reunite and catch up with old friends.
9) Presented a poster and podium presentation at AAPA 2009.
10) Submit and receive acceptance for a poster presentation for AAPA 2010.
11) Taught 4 of my own sections of Intro to Physical Anth (ie, one per quarter, all year) with course sizes ranging from 18-70.
12) Visit two new zoos that have spider monkeys :)
13) Start this blog :)

So that's the some of the highlights of 2009. Not bad for a year that had less traveling than normal, no fieldwork, and only one conference (in the past couple years, I've been going to quite a lot of conferences). 2010 should be interesting, as I am preparing to leave for the field in May! It's pretty exciting, but also pretty scary, as I'm planning on being there for 14-15 months, and my entire dissertation depends on getting the data I need (note to spider monkeys--please cooperate with me!).

Finally, I just wanted to share this opinion piece from the NY times about The Happiest People, which Nicholas Kristof asserts are the Costa Ricans! It made me happy to think that I will be spending 15 months of my life in a happy place (albeit, a happy place where I will have limited electricity, interent access only every few months, and will be separated from my boyfriend for most of the time). Kristof attributes the happiness of Costa Rica to the lack of military, and emphasis on education and environment. That might be some of it, but I'd also argue that part of that happiness stems from the fact that there are beautiful wild spider monkeys there (as well as so many other beautiful animals, plants, and ecosystems)!