Monday, June 8, 2020

#DecolonizePrimatology: A Reading List

(Last updated October 2021: will be periodically updated).

The goal of this reading list is to curate a list of readings and other media that address understanding the need to decolonize primatology and developing approaches to doing so. If you find this material useful, and use it in courses or researchPLEASE CITE IT! Please be mindful that part of unsettling colonial dynamics in primatology means recognizing, acknowledging, and citing the work of Global South scholars/scholars of Global South diasporas.

There are differing definitions and understandings of what it means to decolonize. If you are new to the concept of decolonizing, and/or still struggling to understand what it means to decolonize, here are some good starting points:

IUCN Primate Specialist Group Section for Human-Primate Interactions webinar of Decolonising Primatology, organized by Sian Waters and Susan Cheyne, and featuring talks by Seheno-Andriantsaralaza, June Rubis, Jo Setchell, and myself.

My TEDx Marquette Talk: Who Gets to Be Our Conservation Heroes?

Here's some background reading on decoloniality:
And here are some videos explaining perspectives on decoloniality:

This list focuses on readings that address the 1) neocolonial history of primatology (or, in some cases, more broadly the colonial/neocolonial origins of science, anthropology, and conservation that relate to primatology), 2) the power imbalances and hierarchies between North American/European scientists/funders and the local people and communities where primate research is conducted, and/or 3) how those power hierarchies and gatekeeping limit full access, authorship, participation, and/or leadership of African, Asian, and Central/South American researchers (as well as racial/ethnic minorities in North America/Europe) relative to white North Americans and Europeans.

This list is NOT intended to be a comprehensive list of publications from range-country primatologists. If you are looking for that, please see this editable Google doc of Publications by Range-Country Primatologists. Many thanks to Erin Kane, Cat Hobaiter, Colleen Friedly, Caitlin Hobbs, Luz Carvajal, and Elicia Abella for their work on putting this together!

This list is a work in progress and will be periodically updated--please let me know of other readings I should be adding to the list! Please note, though, that unless noted in the annotation, this is a list curated based on my own reading, so if you send me additional readings, it may take a bit before I have a chance to read it and add it to the list. Also, if you use end up using any of my writing or this list in your syllabi, please let me know!


Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in Modern Society
by Donna Haraway

  • A feminist examination of primatology's history, focusing on the role of race, gender, and colonialism. I debated putting this on here solely because the last time I attempted to read this book, I struggled to get through it and understand it--I'm not sure how much I really read and absorbed from that attempt. However, it's an important contribution, and it's been long enough that I should give it another attempt at a re-read.

Primate Encounters: Models of Science, Gender, and Society
Edited by Shirley Strum and Linda Fedigan

  • An edited volume exploring the ways in which primate research is shaped by broader cultural and historical patterns. It's been a long time since I've read this one, but my favorite chapters were those that offered perspectives from Japan and Brazil.
Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation

by Juno Salazar ParreƱas 

  • Multispecies ethnography focusing on the work of caring for rehabilitant orangutans from decolonial, feminist perspective, highlight the unequal, neocolonial hierarchies in sanctuary care and conservation management, and the way in which emphasis on prioritizing breeding to increase population numbers may overlook the animals' welfare.

Articles from Peer-reviewed Journals and Edited Volumes:

The Elephant in the Room: Confronting the Colonial Character of Wildlife Conservation in Africa. 2008. African Studies Review, 51(3): 51-74.
by Elizabeth Garland

  • Examines the way structural inequality and neocolonial approaches characterize African conservation through cases studies of National Geographic supported work include Jane Goodall and Gombe, and Michael Fay's mega-transect project.

by Mary E. Blair. 2019. International Journal of Primatology, 40: 462-464.
  • Commentary on how primatology needs to work toward decolonizing and becoming more equitable.

by Michelle Bezanson (@bezanswer) and Allison McNamara ( @allison_mcnama). 2019. Evolutionary Anthropology, 28(4): 166-178.
  • Examines the distribution of primate field research across taxa and research sites, highlighting biases toward major field sites and frequently studied taxa, potential publication biases, and ethical issues with the lack of community engagement and acknowledgement.

by Danielle N. Lee (@DNLee) 2020. Animal Behaviour, 164, 272-280.
  • Review of the contributions of underrepresented minorities to the field of American animal behavior research from 1800s to the present to restores this narratives into the discipline's history. If you use this article in your course, please make sure you send your syllabi to the author!

by Neel Ahuja. 2013.  In: The Macaque Connection: Cooperation and Conflict Between Humans and Macaques. S. Radhakrishna, MA Huffman, A Sinha, (Eds). Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects 43: Springer. pp 71-91.
  • Describes the history of Indian Rhesus macaque exportation to the United States, within the larger backdrop of British colonialism, the establishment of Indian Rhesus macaques as a biomedical model in the United States, as well as some of the broader history colonial and neo-colonial history of importing primates and establishing as biomedical models. This is especially useful for the perspective of how Clarence Ray Carpenter’s research and export of Rhesus macaques from India to Puerto Rico was predicated on a colonial model of science, and how early waves of American exportation from British colonial India despite religious and cultural objections.
by June Mary Rubis. 2020. Cultural Studies 34(5):811-830. DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2020.1780281
  • Describes how the push for recognizing Indigenous knowledge in conservation priotizes traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), but does not prioritize Indigenous inter-relationships with nature. Via a kin (case) study in Sarawak, Rubis considers the way in which conservation organization's use of the term "orang utan"--a Western term combining Malay terms for "people" and "forest"--is part of a power dynamic in which conservation organizations prioritize their views over local Iban people's relationships with the "maias" (the Iban term for orangutans). Acknowledging and using the Iban name is a step toward prioritizing Indigenous human-animal-ecosystem relationships.
by Aamina H. Malik, Janine M. Ziermann, & Rui Diogo ( @Rui_Diogo_Lab). 2017. Journal of Biology Education.  DOI: 10.1080/00219266.2016.1268190
  • Overview of the contribution of Muslim scholars in developing ideas about evolution, natural selection, human's similarity to to apes/monkeys, and the evolution of human skin color from the 8th through 14th century during the Islamic Golden Age. These scholars are typically left out of Eurocentric Western accounts of the development of ideas that led to Darwin and Wallace's development of evolutionary theory. However, many of the eight scholars listed published their work, and their writings may have influenced the European thinkers that are credited for the foundations of evolutionary theory.
  • An important perpsective on the Eurocentric biases of primatology that highlights how cultural worldviews shape relationships with, and our understanding of non-human primates, and why those diverse cultural perspectives are needed to strengthen how primatology is practiced. The perspectives of non-Western primatologies is highlighted, with an emphasis on how different cultural/religious worldviews shape how primates are viewed in relation to humans, and thus how primatological research is approached. For example, the Euro-centric perspectives of humans in a hierarchical relationship to primates contrats with Buddhist, Shinto, and Hindu perspectives of seeing both human and non-human primates within inter-connected, non-hierarchical systems. This is one of the best perspectives I've read about how cultural worldview shapes primatology, and the importance of recognizing different culturally-situated 'primatologies,' rather than single, unified primatology.
by Mewa Singh
  • This review provides a historical perpective of Indian primatological research. Indian primatology began from roots with zoology, and was largely iniated by foreign primatologists, predominantly American and Japanese primatologists. However, one Indian primatologist, Sho Dan Singh, began his research during this the early natural history phase, and had an important role of shaping the discipline. This paper tracks the history of Indian primatology, emphasizing Sheo Dan Singh's influence is training students, and highlights the development of an earlier Indian primatological society that became inactive, and the initation of the Association of Indian Primatologists in 2019.
Blog and Magazine Articles:

by Adam Johnson (@Anthropology365)
  • Explores Kinji Imanishi's A Japanese View of Nature: The World of Living Things, focusing on Imanishi's perspectives on Darwinian natural selection from a Japanese perspective. Darwinian evolutionary theory has roots in the determinististic Western Enlightment philosophy, whereas Imanishi views are shaped by Japanese cultural perspectives.

by Michelle A. Rodrigues (@MARspidermonkey)

  • A summary of Bezanson and McNamara's (2019) study on field site and taxonomic biases in primate research (see above) with suggestions on ways to address these issues.

It's Time to Stop Lionizing Dian Fossey As a Conservation Hero
by Michelle A. Rodrigues (@MARspidermonkey)

  • Addressing the way in which veneration of Dian Fossey as a conservation martyr overlooks her violent methods that were rooted in neo-colonialism and racism.

Neocolonial Narratives of Primate Conservation
by Michelle A. Rodrigues (@MARspidermonkey)

  • Examines how the National Geographic documentary Jane reiterates the neocolonial narratives of primate research and African conservation, and more broadly, the way that primate conservation research is rooted in colonial and neocolonial history. 

The Achilles Heel of Conservation
 by Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo (@merynomsa)

  • Not specific to primatology, but broadly about the way that African conservation centers white foreigners while being closed to local Black Africans.

The Problem of Colonial Science
by Asha De Vos (@ashadevos)
  • Not specific to primatology, but about the problems of doing "helicopter science" and the way that global conservation research structures and funding create power imbalances and limit opportunities for local researchers to access funding and shape conservation research driven by local cultural knowledge and  expertise.

Recovering conservationist: Q&A with orangutan ecologist June Mary Rubis
by Basten Gokken
  • Malaysian ecologist June Mary Rubis describes her previous work with an international NGO with orangutan education programs with Indigenous communities. In this work, she encountered the issues working within the paternalistic Western frameworks of orangutan (maias) conservation, and the ways conservation work prioritized their views of conservation over the Indigenous Iban relationships with the maias and the forest. She describes herself as a "recovering conservationist" and recommends a shift to prioritizing Indigenous social science.

by Brurce Mecca ( @Brurce)
  • Not specific to primatology (and points the problems of  Western researchers centering their priorities in Indonesian environmental science on only orangutans and deforestation), but relevant to the dynamics between Western scientists and scientists from the areas those Western scientists study. Mecca brings up issues with how differences in inter-cultural perspectives and understandings means that for Indonesian scientists to be understood, or have their views recognized, they must assimilate to Western styles of communication and priorities. Additionally, while Western researchers set priorities in terms of addressing their hypotheses and building theory, they undervalue the perspectives and priorities of Indonesian researchers who prioritize the pressing environmental issues that affect local people's lives.

  • Critique of a commentary published in the American Journal of Primatology, De-colonizing Conservation in a Global World, by Annette Lanjouw. They note that Lanjouw brings up valuable approaches in conservation; however, it does not fully engage with recognition of colonial dynamics in conservation/primatology, cite the rich literature on decoloniality in the social sciences development by Global South scholars, or cite Global South primatologists working on decolonial approaches. They highlight that "decolonizing" should refer to unsettling colonial dynamics--and that using the term without challinging colonial/decolonial dynamics or citing Global South researchers that develop this literature perpetuates necolonialism dynamics.

by Bidyut Sarania, Krishnapriya Tamma (@priya_tamma), Samira Agnihotri, Subhashini Krishnan (@serenehowls), & Sutirtha Lahiri
  • An important perspective on how calls to decolonize research play out power dynamics in India, including tribal and casteist perspectives. While focused on India, there's an important lesson here that beyond Global North-Global South dynamics, there's additional layers of power dynamics that should be carefully considered.

Other relevant reading lists:

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Online Resources for Teaching Bio Anth

Here's a non-exhaustive list of resources that may helpful in teaching online. If anyone would like labs online primate behavior (using video and live-feeds) or a comparative primate anatomy lab (using e-skeletons), feel free to e-mail me!

Screenshot of San Diego Ape Cam


  • Virtually watch marmosets at the WNPRC!
  • Pros: associated ethograms and exercises
  • Cons: this one runs into the most issues with browser plug-in issues
  • This is the my favorite primate web cam!
  • Pros: you may see gibbon-siamang play!
  • Cons: sometimes primates are out of sight
  • There's both gorilla and chimp cams!
  • Pros: really high-quality feed!
  • Cons: sometimes primate are out of sight 
  • This is my new favorite, because I studied these bonobos!
  • Pros: Good chance of seeing my favorite bonobo friends!
  • Cons: Both indoor exhibits aren't always viewable
  • Contribute to real research!
  • Pros: good for learning to ID species
  • Cons: not great for behavioral observations

NOTE: For live feed labs/projects, remind students that finding animals/animals being out of sight is one of the biggest challenges with studying wild primates too!

Javan Slow Lorises and the Pet Trade

  • Interactive Google Tour by Sarah Fachnie that explores the pet trade.
  • Interactive Google Expedition by Raymond Vagell that explores the Duke Lemur Center and lemur vision. It can be viewed on your computer, or in 3D with a virtual reality headset!


  • Useful for primate comparative anatomy!
  • Huge comparative anatomy library!



  • gateway to online citizen science projects that can be used for labs!
  • gateway to online biology labs!
  • lots of virtual fun, and educator guides available!
  • lots of paleo video and interviews!

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Closed Gates and Opening New Doors: #SciFoo 2019

A glimpse into the world of spider monkeys

Last year I fell in love with Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. It’s about a school for teenagers who disappeared through doorways to other worlds, where they finally found a place where they fit in, but then found themselves back in our own boring, real world. The kids in the school find comradery with other kids that are all strange and weird in their own unique ways but are longing to get back to the place where they really fit. It made me of El Zota, which has always been my Narnia. When I left after 15 months of dissertation fieldwork in 2001, I needed a break and switched to new project studying captive apes. But my goal was always to either find a job that allow me to get back to field in the summers and take students with me (or find one working with captive animals that had space for me to get back to the field for applied conservation projects).  Unfortunately, my Lack of Attaining a (Real) Job made me put those plans on hold and it feels like a magical place from my dreams that I just can’t find the doorway back too. I ended up moving on to research studying woman of color scientists specifically to create space for myself and others in academia, but in doing so I have become even more aware of all the doors that keep slamming Because I Am Not Welcome.

But then in April I received an e-mail invitation to Science Foo Camp. It looked a bit more like a random spam e-mail than a key to a new door, but when You Get a Summons Inviting You In… the only obvious step seems to follow it.  But the invitation to Sci Foo describes how they invite people doing “groundbreaking work,” and I was worried that it was Another Place I Did Not Belong.

My career is a Total, Utter Failure. In six years, I haven’t been able get the most important part of my dissertation published. In seven years of interviewing for academic and non-academic jobs, I have failed, again and again, to impress hiring directors and search committees. I have been knocking on 280+ doors, and most of them have been slammed in my face. And I have also been repeatedly reminded, in so many small and large ways, in which I Do Not Belong unless I flatten and mold myself into something that is… not quite myself.

But Sci Foo also fell right in the middle of when a friend was teaching a field course at El Zota.  We planned for me to come down and give a guest lecture in her course and was Finally Going Back. But there was that e-mail for an exclusive, invitation-only conference that I may never get an invite to again, so I put my field plans on hold and Said Yes to Sci Foo. I thought I could work around it go to El Zota after, but my friend’s class was cancelled due to low enrollment. And the one week that she would go down to Costa Rica was exactly when I would be at Sci Foo.

I would much rather visit the Beautiful Swampy Rainforest That Haunts My Dreams, instead of networking with a bunch of strangers who probably think I Do Not Belong.

#fieldworkfail: The Swamp of Sorrows Where I Nearly Drowned of Failure

But I went, and I was pleasantly surprised that the exclusive, invitation-only had the peculiar effect of almost eliminating the normal forms of gatekeeping and hierarchy academia has taught me to expect as normal. Instead of the “Do you even go here” responses I expect, people treated me like belonged. Until now, I had not consciously recognized how incredibly constant that experience has been, and the ways in which it has paradoxically intensified after receiving my PhD and Failing To Get a (Real) Job. So many of my experiences in science, from applying to field positions to applying to graduate school to submitting grants and manuscripts and 280+ job applications have been “You Can’t Sit With Us.” When I have been offered a seat, it’s always been at the Academic Kids Table (visiting, adjunct, postdoc positions), where it is impressed upon me that I am Just a Trainee and Still Early Career with less potential than the graduate students who *could* lived up to the potential I Failed to Achieve.

The best part about Sci Foo was being treated like an adult that was welcome to sit with anyone and included in conversations on everything from non-human language to protein-folding to the search for alien life and treated like A Real Scientist With Valid Expertise.

I had some amazing conversations and met fantastic people. Of course, there were sessions that were mostly old white men talking among themselves and conversations where I still didn’t feel like I quite fit in. But there were also fascinating conversations with people that made an intentional effort to invite new people in and make sure that if you were talked over that you were heard. Through those conversations I was reminded of the passions I have set on the back burner.  In a failure story slam, I talked about the #fieldworkfail that reminded me how much I love The Swamp of Sadness Where I Nearly Drowned of Failure. For years I have failed to get back to my gorgeous, swampy, bullet-ant infested rainforest, and dreamed about writing a fieldwork memoir interspersing my #fieldworkfails with stories of spider monkeys. I want to share the social lives of these enchanting, endangered animals, and how important it is to understand their world and conserve their forests before it becomes too late. That was plan, back when I started Spider Monkey Tales, but I have kept getting further and further away from that goal.

When I started studying them in 2005, Geoffroy's spider monkey was not listed as Endangered. Now they are one of the 25 Most EndangeredPrimates. Now is getting precariously close to Its Too Late.

I have been getting caught up with fighting to get into the gates slammed in my face instead of findings ways to create the doors back to where I really want to be.

I need to get my butt back down to that beautiful rainforest and plunge right into The Swamp of Sadness Where I Nearly Drowned of Failure and get cracking on Writing the Damn Book. And I think I’m done trying to fight my way into places that don’t want me.

Who wouldn't want to read a book about these gorgeous creatures' lives?

So anyway, if you get a strange e-mail inviting you to a gather of Really Important People Where You Probably Don’t Belong, take it. It might just be that magical key that leads you back to finding the door that’s always been there, waiting for you to find it again.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Do we need white privilege to teach about race?

Last year, in the wake of Charlottesville, I saw quite a few biological anthropologists state on social media that they would use their white privilege to expand how they address the anthropology of race and human variation. While I appreciate their commitment to using white privilege to dismantle myths about race that underlie white supremacy, this statement made me uncomfortable. If anthropologists need white privilege in order to teach white students about race, what does that mean for anthropologists of color teaching these topics? What does that mean for students of color, in a classroom curriculum that may unintentionally center the education of white students?

So I drafted a blog entry which I didn't post. I didn't quite feel comfortable posting something that critiqued senior colleagues' good intentions. But in the light of more recent discussions about the way in which anthropology pushes students of color out of the "pipeline," and recent discussion on twitter about the challenges black professors have in teaching about race, I think it's worth revisiting.

In my own experiences of teaching biological anthropology, I've used my own identity as an example of how its difficult to categorize people based on appearance. While others do similar exercises with online resources or pictures of celebrities, I think my identity can be an asset in engaging students in a personal way. On the other hand, it can also negatively affect how students perceive my expertise and effectiveness as a professor, and make it riskier for my to teach challenging topics. As a visible minority, there's limits to what I can teach and how I can teach it without risking pushback from students. I discuss race from a biocultural perspective, but avoid directly tackling the issue of white privilege, whereas white colleagues can more easily address it because they share that experience with their white students.

I wish colleagues would explicitly recognize that their white privilege affects both their ability to teach challenging topics and how students evaluate them--and  that this has greater implications for the inclusion and retention of minority students and faculty within anthropology. Student evaluations play a role in if contingent faculty get renewed contracts, how job candidates are evaluated, and whether tenure-track professors receive tenure. They are well-documented biases based on race and gender. Racialized minorities, particularly women of color, need to constantly assess how their teaching will be received in light of these biases. And often, "diversity" is valued in the classroom for educating white students, which may came at the expense of minority students. When educating white students is centered, I worry that it may shine an uncomfortable spotlight on students of color. I've been in situations where I was expected to share my experiences of racism to educate white colleagues, and it's incredibly uncomfortable. We need to be mindful of how, often unintentionally, these experiences alienate minority students.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

"Are we othering you?" The elephant in the room when we talk about minority inclusion in Biological Anthropology

Yeah... I can relate to that. From

The first year of my master's I was friends with a grad student who would make odd comments about my appearance and identity. There would be comments about my skin color, or comparisons to Parminder Nagra, or about how our friend group was "so diverse" because there was a blond, a redhead... and me. And they were followed by the question "Are we othering you?"

Today I would call those comments microaggressions, and recognized the challenge in that question to actual call her out. I didn't, and it took a lot more overt bullying and eventually ostracism for me to realize that she was not a genuine friend. But as I read the recent article on Race and Diversity in Biological Anthropology, and especially Savannah Martin's commentary on "Othering" that was cited within it, those words echoed in my mind.

I've experienced more of those microaggressions from other anthropologists than I've ever experienced from non-anthropologists. And I suspect that's because anthropologists have an idea that they "know" about race, because, hey, they talk about and teach about it, right? But their discomfort ends up bubbling out, in jokes and odd comments and weird treatment. That discomfort was obvious when I was a TA for an archaeologist teaching an introductory class on biological anthropology and archaeology. On the way to teach the "race" lecture, he told an anecdote about his young niece, who was half-Indian. "She's Indian. Dot, not feather!" He looked me in the eye and laughed at his joke, while the other TA and I exchanged panicked glances as we wondered how he was actually going to handle talking about race in class (spoiler alert: it was pretty bad).

These are the sort of things you have to just brush off if you are a racial minority within anthropology. Of course, even with trying to ignore them, the accumulated toil of those comments can negatively impact mental and physical health. But when those may be the people serving on committees who decides who gets into graduate school, who passes comprehensive exams, and who gets tenure-track jobs... is it any wonder that so few minorities make it through the gauntlet from undergrad to tenure-track and tenured positions?

Anton, Malhi, and Fuentes review many of the issues that serve as impediments to racialized minorities within anthropology, especially highlighting the impact of "physical" anthropology's racist origins, and the problems inherent in the name of the discipline. They present survey data from 30 anthropology programs that suggests that biological anthropogy loses minorities at two key junctures: from undergraduate to graduate school, and graduate school to faculty positions.
Figure 1 from Anton et al, 2018. Minorities get a pretty tiny slice of the bio anthro pie.

They also review some of the programs that the Committee on Diversity has implemented to increase recruitment and inclusion, and suggest priorities for the future. Some of these are focused on recruitment to graduate programs, such as suggesting that departments eliminate GREs as a requirement for admission. They also discuss the need to improve retention, through methods such as mentoring and valuing service and outreach.

Utimately, my cynical opinion is that these solutions are not going to fix the underlying problem. I'm not so optimistic about recruiting more minority students just to expose them to a gauntlet of microaggressions and exclusion. And while mentoring may help in forming supportive networks, it still puts the burden on "solving" the problem of minority inclusion on minority students and faculty.

Yeah, let's just recruit more students of color to run the gauntlet...
From Swedish artist Emanu

A few years ago, I was on a campus interview where the search commitee emphasized how much they value diversity, and their goal of making the campus environment more inclusive. The next day, I had breakfast with the one minority professor on the faculty, who wasn't on the committee. She warned me that although they give a lot of lip service to the idea of "diversity", they don't actually "want" diversity, because it makes them uncomfortable (spoiler alert: I did not get the job).

THIS, right there, is the problem. Until the white majority of biological anthropology faculty actually confront their own discomfort around racial and ethnic minorities, we are not going to be actively included. We will always be the "other," and never part of the "us." The message is clear that we are not wanted, no matter how much lip service is given to "diversity" and inclusion.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Human infants prefer helpers, but adult bonobos prefer hinderers

Over the past couple of days, headlines about a new bonobo paper caught my eye:

"Unlike Humans, Bonobos Shun Helpers and Befriend the Bullies"

"Humans like Helpers, but Bonobos Prefer Bullies"

"'Laid-back' Bonobos Take a Shine to Belligerents"

My initial reaction to the stories was mixed. One one hand, I'm really glad we are moving beyond stereotyping bonobos as peaceful "hippy chimps" who are constantly having orgies and nice all the time. Bonobos can be aggressive, both to their bonobo conspecifics and sometimes human caretakers. They do have engage in a variety of sexual behaviors with all age and sex classes, but that sexual behavior is typically over in a matter of seconds. Much like humans and chimpanzees, their lives are full of complex social relationships that include friendship, fighting, and jockeying for power and position.

My bonobo bestie Susie, who lives at the Columbus Zoo,
taught me that bonobo social lives are just as rich and complicated as our own.

On the other hand... having survived both junior high and academia (so far), I certainly do not buy the idea that humans like helpers and shun bullies. I'm familiar with the study that elegantly demonstrates that human infants prefer "helpers" to "hinderers," but my personal experience with humans suggests that for older humans, such behavior is likely vary context-dependent. And having spent some time studying bonobos, I suspect that, like us, how they would react in such situations would also likely be context-dependent.

But to evaluate this evidence, I needed to read Krupenye and Hare's article. They did four experiments on bonobos from ages 4-19 at Lola ya Bonobo, a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the first experiment, they repeated the study done with human infants, where a square and triangle with googly eyes help or hinder a googly-eyed circle in climbing up a hill. The bonobos could then reach for a food reward under a cut-out of the mean, "hinderer" or nice "helper." Overall, the bonobos exhibited a significant bias toward reaching to the hinderer cut-out for food. However, when adults (> 9 years old) and subadults were analyzed separately, this bias was ONLY significant for the adults. In control trials with non-googly-eyed helpers/hinderers, there was no bias toward others.

Figure 1 from Krupenye and Hare (2017). See caption for more detail.

In the next two experiments, bonobos watched humans act as helpers or hinderers, and then could reach out to either to take a food reward. In Experiment 2, the bonobo subjects watched a human playing with a stuffed animal and dropping it. The helper tried to return the toy, while the hinderer snatched it away. The bonobos could then choose food offered at the same time from either the helper or hinderer. In this experiment, there were no significant differences when all age groups were lumped together. However, when adults and subadults were analyzed separately, adults exhibited a significant preference for "hinderers", while subadults didn't.

Figure 3 from Krupenye and Hare (2017). See caption for more detail.

Experiment 3 followed the same protocol as Experiment 2, but they did four trials beforehand where the bonobos were just offered food from the same two people. If bonobos exhibited a preference for one person, that person was assigned the "helper" position. If bonobos exhibited no preference in the initial trials, the 'helper" position was assigned semi-randomly. Bonobos exhibited a significant bias toward shifting to take food from the "hinderer." However, only adults participated in this experiment.

Finally, in Experiment 4, they did another experiment with the googly-eyed shapes, only this time they showed one googly-eyed shape displace the other for position. Displacements, where one individual takes another individual's spot, is a demonstration of dominance in primates. Humans do this too, and bonobos should recognize the "displacer" as the dominant individual. Overall, the bonobos exhibited a significant preference for the dominant individuals. Like the first experiment, when adults and subadults were analyzed separately, only the adults exhibited significant results.

So what do these results tell us? I think Krupenye and Hare have nicely demonstrated that adult bonobos in a sanctuary setting prefer "hinderers" or dominant individuals. However, these results don't hold for the younger bonobos (ages 4-9). And that's where the comparison to humans fall short. We can't compare human infants to adult bonobos, and then conclude that this is a species difference. I suspect that this may be an age difference in both species, though there also may be greater variation depending on culture, personality, socialization, etc.

Female bonobo Unga grooms infant Jerry at the Columbus Zoo. Bonobo mothers invest heavily
in caring for their offspring, so orphans who lost their mothers may potential behave differently.

Additionally, I have some concerns about how rearing history and choice of actors may have affected results. The bonobos were orphans who typically arrived at the sanctuary around 2-3 years old. Before this, they most likely witnessed their mothers (and possible other group-mates) killed by poachers. They then may have been held in cages and poorly cared for before being confiscated. Then, they are nurtured primarily by Congolese women that work at the sanctuary, while having access to play with peers. Thus, all of the bonobo subjects have a history of early trauma that may potentially affect their interactions with both humans and other bonobos. The people acting as "helpers" and "hinderers" were both Congolese men who had never interacted with the bonobos before, and I think it's possible that their identity may be a factor that could affect bonobos choices.

Nonetheless, this is some fascinating research, and hopefully it will be replicated with chimpanzees and other primates. The full-text of the study is available online, and you can watch the supplemental videos to get a better idea of what the experiments looked like.

Monday, September 18, 2017

#2017MMM: An Example of Multimedia Scientific Communication

I wrote this to fulfill one of the requirements of the 21st Century Scientists Science Communication Certificate at University of Illinois. The certificate is geared toward graduate students, but open to postdocs too! If you are interested about it or have any questions, feel free to e-mail me or tweet me!

To observe a science communicator, I observed March Mammal Madness, which is a public engagement project started by Katie Hinde. Since its inception in 2013, March Mammal Madness has grown into an international event with a large team of scientists sharing the planning and execution of this month-long outreach endeavor. The concept is modeled on an NCAA tournament, with different animals competing against each other in a bracket. Data on each animal’s size, habitat, and fighting abilities are used to generate probabilities of each winning, and randomness is introduced in selecting the winner of each outcome. Higher-seded animals get the advantage of competing within their own habitat in the first rounds, and in the final rounds, habitat is chosen at random. The scientific team then develop a narrative surrounding the battle that incorporates facts gleaned from peer-reviewed sources, and then live-tweet the narrative of each battle. After each set of battles, the tweets are documented via Storify and posted on Hinde’s blog and the March Mammal Madness Facebook page.

My 2013 Bracket--I think this was my first selfie EVER!

 I originally participated in the first March Mammal Madness in 2013. Back then, it was on a smaller scale, and it seemed that it was just for a bunch of animal biology nerds to have some fun with March Madness. Since then it has grown exponentially, and some educators now build classroom curricula to coincide with March Mammal Madness. This year, the organizers made the bracket selection available to educators early to plan curricula, and over 200 educators took advantage of this. The scientific planning team has now expanded to include eight scientists narrating the battles. Additionally, a scientific illustrator creates accompanying artwork, two additional scientists tweet facts about the individual species, and the American Society of Mammalogists and Cleveland Museum of Natural History tweet facts and images. This year, #2017MMM began with additional fanfare, including an outreach event at Arizona State University and a green-screened theatrical version of the wild card battle. Additionally, fans have created their own blog or video recaps.

I’ve followed along March Mammal Madness every year, but my interest often wanes. Each year, I start out following enthusiastically, but lose interest as my favorites become eliminated. This year, I intended to follow the entire tournament. I was especially invested in this years’ battles, as my favorite animal and study species, Geoffroy’s spider monkey, was a competitor. One of the great strengths of March Mammal Madness is that it’s easily adaptable to needs of different educators and interest groups. In the past, my participation was for fun. However, I have colleagues that used it in teaching undergraduates and high school students. For some, it was a fun teaching opportunity that they could incorporate for extra credit. For others, they could build a curriculum around it. Many scientists and educational organizations now use it as an opportunity to share facts about their study species. This year, in addition to incorporating it as one of our lab’s social activities, I wrote a blog post about the spider monkey’s shot at the championship and took advantage of the spider monkey battle days to tweet pictures and fun factoids about spider monkeys. And, since many scientists enjoy trash-talking the competition, I took advantage to share pictures, facts, and some trash-talk about a fellow primate competitor, the white-headed (or white-faced) capuchin monkey.

Capuchins are cute, but seriously, they are little punks!

            The drawback of March Mammal Madness, however, is that it’s so drawn out, and keeping up with the live-tweets is time-consuming. The first week, each battle day took about three hours to live-tweet—for a total of approximately nine hours a week. Despite my best intentions, I didn’t have the time or energy to spend following the live-action, so I ended up focusing on tweeting and following the action on days when the spider monkeys competed, and caught up the next day with recaps and Storify. However, while they were useful summaries of who won/lost, reading through the Storify can be tedious, and I imagine for those that aren’t familiar with twitter, it may be hard to follow.

            While the spider monkeys made it to the final four, they were beaten by the honey badger, and as usual, my interest waned once my favorite was eliminated. While, March Mammal Madness is fun, and a great opportunity for educators to introduce mammalian biology and behavior, I think it’s hard to track over the course of the month unless you are very invested. In our own lab group, I did my best to provide updates, but by the end, none of our lab’s undergraduates kept up and tabulated their brackets. Nonetheless, I think it’s a great resource for elementary school teachers, who can take advantage of the early brackets and associated information to build their own lesson plans around the mammalian competitors. This year, it received a large amount of media attention, including articles in Gizmodo, NPR, and other outlets, and the media interest indicate it’s become an incredibly successful outreach effort. The lessons I’ve learned from March Mammal Madness are that 1) public engagement can and should be fun, and 2) building a recurring, large-scale public engagement project requires a lot of initial investment, but requires a larger team to be sustainable.