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.