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.


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


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.


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!


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.  

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Congratulations, former field assistants!

Three of my fabulous field assistants have been accepted to graduate school, and have exciting research plans!

Emily "Little Chair" Stulik will be pursuing a Masters in Biology at Indiana-Purdue University to study herpetology with Dr. Bruce Kingsbury. She plans to focus her research on either Massasauga rattlesnakes in Michigan or river turtles in Indiana.

Anna "Fondles Poo" Kordek will be pursuing a Masters in Anthropology at Northern Illinois University with Dr. Leila Porter. Anna plans to study captive bonobo endocrinology, and hopes to eventually study bonobos in the field as well.

Lindsay "One Feather" Mahovetz will be entering the Psychology program at Georgia State University to study ape cognition with Dr. Bill Hopkins.  She plans to study great apes at the Language Research Center, Yerkes Primate Center, and Zoo Atlanta.

Congratulations, ladies!  "Sings with Monkeys" is very proud and excited about your future research endeavors! Of course, I am slightly disappointed that none of you are planning to study spider monkeys, but...  I'm also envious of Anna, because I too have dreams of studying captive bonobos at some point!   And hopefully someday you will all get to return to El Zota to see how our beautiful monkeys are doing!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Re-wilding captive animals is a risky endeavour

I just read about Damien Aspinall's plans to reintroduce many of the Aspinall Zoo's animals, including gorillas, langurs, and gibbons, as well as Mark Bekoff recent blog post praising these efforts.

Quite honestly, I have some serious concerns about these reintroductions, and am appalled that a prominent ethologist is so uncritically supportive of these efforts.  The motivation is one I understand, although I do not agree with either Aspinall or Bekoff's perspective on the efficacy and ethics of zoos (both have a very negative view on zoos efficacy and ethics).

In theory, re-introductions sounds like a wonderful, beautiful idea.  Take animals whose ancestors were wrongly taken from their kin and native environment, and return them so that they can be wild again.  This is an idea that has inspired me from the very first time I watched Born Free, and when I became interested in primatology, the Golden Lion Tamarin project was my inspiration.

Because of my passion for reintroductions, I audited a course on Wildlife Reintroductions with Dr. Benjamin Beck, one of the foremost experts on the subject.  I read the literature on primate re-introductions, focusing on ape reintroductions, and eventually co-authored Best Practice Guidelines for Ape reintroduction.

And honestly, while I absolutely would love to see re-introduction programs succeed, they have very low success rates, and in many cases will be scary and traumatizing to the animals involved.  Re-introduction of birds and reptiles have higher success rates than mammals, and highly social mammals such as primates have some of the greatest obstacles and lowest chances of success.  The best candidates for re-introduction are usually wild-born sanctuary animals (who may have some memory and experience of the wild).  Individuals who have spent their whole lives in captivity, particularly those that are very human-oriented, are poor candidates for reintroduction.  Most re-introduced animals have short lifespans, are at risk for starvation, predation, and attack by wild members of their own species.  Furthermore, particularly with primates, and especially with great apes, there is a risk of spreading human-contracted diseases to wild populations.

Ultimately, while I do believe that carefully planned reintroductions can be successful, and in particular have value for increasing wild populations numbers if the introduced animals are able to live long enough to reproduce, I do not think it is a solution for individual animal welfare.  While the idea assuages the guilt that humans may have for the past atrocities of capturing wild animals, and of keeping their descendants caged/confined for human purposes, it may not be in the animals' best interests.  Particularly for human-oriented animals who have formed bonds with human caretakers, release into the wild, even in a soft release (a soft release is when animals are given post-release support and monitoring), is traumatizing, and in my opinion, may be downright cruel.

If you are further interested in this topic, I highly suggest reading the following:

Beck B, Walkup, K, Rodrigues, M, Unwin,, S, Travis, D, Stoinski T. 2007. Best Practice Guidelines for the Re-introduction of Great Apes. IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland.
Full PDF available at

IUCN (1998). Guidelines for Reintroductions. Prepared by the IUCN/SSC Reintroduction Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Campbridge, UK.

Also, if you are interested in my perspective on zoo goals and their efficacy, check out these previous posts:
Do Zoos Accomplish their Goals?
Zoo Goals: Conservation, Education, and Research
The Efficacy of Zoo Education: Empirical Evidence 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pollitzer Essay: Communicating BioAnthro to the public: How do we do this, and where are we falling short?

The following is an essay I submitted for the AAPA William S. Pollitzer Award.  It was successful, which means that I received $500 toward my conferences expenses (which was much needed!).  Here, I raise a topic that I think is incredibly important, and since I wrote and submitted it, I feel there's already been quite some progress made in this area.  I'd love to hear any feedback!  Since writing it, I have realized that I present an ideal that I would like to achieve.  However, I know I'm falling short of that ideal, at least when it comes to my blogging. Lately, I've been very focused on dissertation analysis/writing, manuscripts, and dreaming up future project ideas. Most of this stuff is work that I am not ready to share yet. I often find myself jotting notes on non-dissertation-related topics I would love to blog about in the future, but never have the time to fully develop and post them (or rather, don't, because I feel I would be using it as a form of procrastination). If anyone has any ideas on  how to use blogging productively in their work, rather than as a distraction/form of procrastination from that work, let me know!  

What important article is missing from the current literature in biological anthropology? Give the title and what you think it's impact/benefit would be.

Communicating BioAnthro to the public: How do we do this, and where are we falling short?

Biological anthropology has an image problem. The recent uproar over comments about the relevance and necessity of anthropology majors (Lende, 2011) , as well as controversy surrounding the AAA’s choice of removing “science” from its mission statement (Rutherford, 2011) indicates that, for both the wider field of anthropology and the public, biological anthropology is often forgotten, marginalized, or misunderstood.
What anthropologists need is an article that addresses ways we can rectify this situation. How do we emphasize the importance of our research and its relevance to the big concerns that affect our world? The research questions we study, whether large or small, are each getting to the root of understanding ourselves and our fellow humans. But how are we broadcasting this to a larger audience?  How do we share the theory and application of our own research niche to colleagues in other subfields?  When our students complete their gen-ed, introductory courses in anthropology, do they walk away with an accurate understanding of this field and its relevance to their lives?  When we give a lecture, whether to a class, an auditorium full of colleagues, or The Rotary Club, are we conveying how the topic of discussion fits within the large field of anthropology?  Are we adequately showing our audience how relevant this might be to both our individual lives and to society as a whole?
I envision an article that could guide us all into bringing biological anthropology into the forefront of public discourse, at multiple levels of society.  While I have no magical formula, I do have some ideas.  I think that we should each reflect on this issue and think of the ways we can share our research and our passion for biological anthropology with the world around us.  We can start by trying to understand our colleagues.  I mentally file people as the chimpanzee person, the stress and endocrinology person, the bone person…  But how well do I really understand their research, and its relevance to me, to my ancestors, to my future descendants, to the whopping 7 billion of us that are sharing this planet?
We could start there.  And we could start by communicating to our non-anthropology, non-academic friends and family.  We could share the joys of anthropology to a greater audience via blogs and popular science articles.  We could try to maintain a presence at science fairs, at every level, so that aspiring scientists realize that anthropology has many options for a passionate young science enthusiast.  We can contribute to public lectures, and share our field’s perspective on health and social issues, on human history, and the public debates and misunderstandings about the perceived conflicts between science and religion.  We can write books for a popular audience, and lend an anthropological perspective to popular accounts of health, science, stress, fertility, evolution, paleoanthropology, human resource dependence, primate behavior, and conservation.  As Agustin Fuentes (2010) laments, anthropological subjects are more frequently covered by science journalists and academics from other fields.   However, we can follow the examples of Kate Clancy (2011), Krystal D’Acosta (2012) Sarah Hrdy (2000, 2009), and Barbara King (2004) in sharing biological anthropology with the public.
I hope that we can work towards making this an issue to discuss at upcoming meetings, and generate ideas that will lead to publication of such an article. I believe that if we all consider this issue and look at ways each and everyone one of us can advance these goals, then we can truly raise the profile of biological anthropology in the public lens and demonstrate how this subfield, as well as other subfields of anthropology, are relevant to everyone.

Clancy, K. 2011. Networking, Scholarship, and Service: The Place of Science Blogging in Academia. Retrieved January 16, 2012,
D’Acosta, K. 2012. What are the Costs of Lending a Helping Hand? Retrieved January 16, 2012,
Fuentes, AF. 2010. The New Biological Anthropology: Bringing Washburn’s New Physical Anthropology into 2010 and Beyond—The 2008 AAPA Luncheon Lecture. Yrbk Phys Anth 53:2-12.
Hrdy, SB. 2000. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How they Shape the Human Species. New York: Ballantine Books.
Hrdy, SB. 2009. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Belknap Press.
King, BJ. 2004. The Dynamic Dance: Nonvocal Communication in African Great Apes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lende, D.  2011. Florida Governor: Anthropology Not Needed Here.  Retrieved December 13, 2011,
Rutherford, JN. 2011. Science in Anthropology  at AAA: an “open” discussion? Retrieved December 13, 2011,

AAPA abstract: Cortisol and reproductive state in female black-handed spider monkeys

I have been in a state of dissertation hibernation, so I haven't posted much lately. But here is my abstract for my poster at AAPA, and I will also post my abstracts for the upcoming IPS meetings in August. I will also try to make an effort to update my blog more often, but that depends on how dissertation progress is going!

Rodrigues, MA, Kitchen, DM. 2012. Cortisol and reproductive state in female black-handed spider monkeys. Am J Phys Anth 147(S54):250-251.

 Fecal glucocorticoid metabolites (e.g., cortisol) are a valuable non-invasive source of information on individual levels of physiological stress. However, using them to evaluate stress levels among females can be problematic in species that do not show overt signs of reproductive condition because concentrations of reproductive hormones can affect cortisol concentrations. For example, high concentrations of estradiol during pregnancy may promote an increase in glucocorticoids and associated binding factors. Here, we examine the efficacy of using fecal glucocorticoid metabolites as an indicator of stress and whether estradiol is a potential confound of such measurements in both wild (El Zota, Costa Rica) and captive (Brookfield Zoo, Illinois) black-handed spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi). First, fecal cortisol concentrations were measured from captive female spider monkeys before and after a veterinary exam. All females exhibited elevated cortisol concentrations after this stressful experience, though concentrations were highly variable among individuals in both conditions. Second, we examined the relationship between cortisol and estradiol concentrations in captive and wild females. In the captive samples all females were cycling and cortisol and estradiol levels were not related (N=22, r=0.177 two-tailed p=0.431). However, in the wild sample, which included nursing, cycling, and pregnant females, cortisol and estradiol were positively correlated (N=24, r=0.700, two-tailed p<0.001). Thus, we demonstrate the need to examine estradiol concentrations when measuring cortisol concentrations among females of unknown reproductive condition. We are currently examining how cortisol concentrations vary among female spider monkeys based on social and environmental factors as well as age, rank and reproductive state.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The best Darwin Day

I had what will probably be the BEST Darwin Day, ever, a few years ago. On Feb 12, 2009, I was grading a stack of article response papers and I came across one wonderful, thoughtful paper by a student. The article she chose to respond to (students read five articles in this section and wrote their paper on one of them) was John Rennie's 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense. I knew that the title and tone of the article could be a bit off-putting, but as I explained to my students, I chose that article because I think it does a great job of dismantling the common misunderstandings about evolution.

The paper that so impressed me was written by a student who had been raised in an Evangelical Christian household, and had been taught to believe in creationism instead of evolution. However, in her paper, she explained that my class, and especially Rennie's article, had made her realize that what she had previously been taught about evolution was incorrect. At first she had been put off by the articles tone, but reading it had made her realize that what she had been taught most of her life was biased, and more importantly, based on misunderstandings.

That Darwin Day was so important to me, because through grading student papers, I learned that I REALLY WAS MAKING A DIFFERENCE! Through my class, a student had come to reconsider the teachings of her family and church on evolution, and realized that she wanted to learn about evolution and really try to understand it for herself. However, her paper also taught me a lesson. As she explained in her paper, some of the misunderstandings that are mocked as nonsense are anything but nonsense to some people. She used the example of Rennie's misconception #6 "If humans descended from monkeys, why are their still monkeys?" As she explained, it may seem like nonsense to someone else, but if you have been taught, your whole life, from trusted parents, teachers, and elders, that believing in evolution means believing that humans beings descended from monkeys, the living monkeys that we see in the zoo... It's not nonsense. Or rather, it's nonsense that others believe in, which makes your own subculture's perspective seem more rational.

I think the lesson that I learned from this student is that if we want students, and the general public, of all political views or religious faiths, to really understand evolution, we need to both respect and understand the strength of the cultural underpinnings underlying anti-evolution beliefs. Enculturation is powerful, and if when you are attacking a particular worldview, people are going to feel threatened. I think the key to broadening public understanding of evolution is by being less confrontational, more respectful, and by really trying to understand the the misunderstandings that prevent people from accepting it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Live Feeds of Primates!

Here's a list of live feeds of primates at zoos, from San Diego to the UK! Thus far, I don't think anyone has a spider monkey cam :( If you discover any ape/monkey cams that I have missed, please let me know!

marmosets at the Wisconsin National Primate Center

Orang Cam:
orangutans at the Durrell Wildlife Trust in the UK

Orang Cam:
orangutans at the National Zoo in DC

Ape Cam:
orangutans and siamangs at the San Diego Zoo

Monkey Cam:
Japanese macaques at the Blank Park Zoo in Iowa

GLT Cam:
Golden Lion Tamarins at the National Zoo in DC

And if you are looking for video clips, I highly recommend that you check out ARKive or National Geographic's monkey videos and ape videos!