Research

My research bridges both field and laboratory-based data collection, integrating a variety of tools to study wild primate behavior and health. I have worked for seven years in the Peruvian Amazon on a long-term monitoring project of saddleback and emperor tamarins, and this is where most of my research is currently based. However, we are also working on smaller datasets from an exciting new site in India.

My research interests are centered around three specific topics:

 

The Sex-Health Paradox:

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As early as the mid 1700s, the first life history tables assembled for human populations indicated that females experienced greater longevity than males. Despite varying a number of other population-specific features, this general pattern seems to hold true across many different human populations. The paradox, however, lies in the fact that males tend to report better health parameters than females, despite on average not living as long as females do.

Testing the sex-health paradox involves measuring longevity, senescence and health indicators, and has been successfully attempted in numerous studies of human populations. Among the nonhuman primates, however, this paradox has only been investigated in the baboons of Amboseli. The Amboseli dataset is incredibly rich – spanning 40 years of near-continuous observation and detailed health monitoring. And at Amboseli, despite every expectation that baboons too would display this paradox, it was found not to be supported.

Why would this occur with long-lived, savannah primates such as baboons who so closely resemble our earliest ancestors? What can we expect among the callitrichids, with their significant departures from the baboon pattern? They are female dominant, cooperatively breeding, shorter-lived and rainforest-dwelling primates. At Los Amigos, we are building the robust dataset that is required to ultimately answer these questions. Every year, we add another piece of the life history puzzle while monitoring health indicators across seventy animals, two species, and fourteen primate groups.

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In order to gain a better understanding of the physiology and health of wild primates, it is essential to be able to observe them up close. However, the capture-program at Los Amigos was initiated for reasons very far from these scientific aspirations. To put it quite simply, the Callitrichidae are notoriously  homogenous in their appearance, making it virtually impossible to tell any adult from another in the group. Males and females look alike, and to make things more difficult, they routinely give birth to infants who grow rapidly into morphologically identical adults. Thus, the study of behavior of these fascinating primates is often restricted to group-level approaches.

To circumvent such problems associated with studying diminutive arboreal primates, we implemented a mark-recapture protocol in 2009. We began with the saddleback tamarins (Saguinus fuscicollis, now known as Leontocebus weddelli or Saguinus weddelli),  but soon incorporated emperor tamarins (Saguinus imperator) and titi monkeys (Callicebus brunneus) into the program. Today, our protocol for safely working with small arboreal primates has been published, and the detailed guide is available upon request for those with a scientific and noncommercial interest in working with these primates.

Although capture programs can and have been misused in the past for exploitative or even simply careless reasons, it is extremely important not to keep protocols hidden and unavailable. A good capture protocol saves lives and reduces unnecessary stress to animals. Thus, we are currently involved in soliciting and recording capture-and-release protocols used by primatologists and veterinarians on wild primate populations across the globe. For more information, or to participate in this program, please see here.

Biodiversity Monitoring

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As forests become increasingly fragmented today and populations isolated from each other, conservationists are tasked with evaluating minimum viable populations for a variety of threatened species in order to implement species survival plans to protect them for the foreseeable future. Such research is often only successful, however, for species at high population densities or that can be easily tracked. Time and again, cryptic or rare species are routinely missed in even the most comprehensive surveys conducted today. For example, previous work in our lab has shown that the small, dark and cryptic Geoldi’s monkey (Callimico geoldi) is both present in areas that have little or no protection, as well as questionable in areas in which they are thought to be protected. Thus, survey technology must adapt to be effective across all species, not just those that catch the eye.

In order to assess if rare species exist, a variety of innovative and noninvasive technologies have been proposed. Passive acoustic monitoring, indicator species DNA screening, and environmental DNA (eDNA) screening are some of the techniques we are exploring to indirectly assess biodiversity at unstudied sites in India and Bangladesh.