Dec. 16, 2019
By Jordana Lenon, Senior Editor, Wisconsin National Primate Research Center
Against a backdrop of news covering the Amazon wildfires and increasing global tensions over increasing deforestation in Brazil, the 42nd meeting of the American Society of Primatologists in August drew participants from beyond US borders to share research updates and calls to action.
“Their story is our story,” said Karen Strier of the wild primates in peril.
Strier and three of her colleagues in their ASP keynote addresses shared research, management, intervention, education and outreach methods to better understand and directly address human impact – mining, logging, dams, disease and climate change – on vulnerable people, forests and animals. A central theme was the need for greater collaboration among field scientists and lab scientists, as well as better education and outreach to the public to lead more local efforts to protect their land, its biodiversity and their communities.
The University of Wisconsin–Madison and Wisconsin National Primate Research Center hosted the 42nd ASP meeting, with the local arrangements committee working hard with ASP officers and committees to provide a memorable backdrop for urgent calls to action to help wild primates and their communities as we have never seen before.
Following are highlights from the meeting’s four keynote speakers:
“D.I.Y. Primatology: Building Careers in Primatology”
Dorothy Fragaszy, Ph.D.
2019 ASP Distinguished Primatologist Lecture
Charlie Menzel, who introduced Doree Fragaszy, said that her “movement between lab and field is a hallmark of her work.” He described Fragaszy’s studies on squirrel, titi and capuchin monkeys and their abilities to perform spacial tasks in this way: “There’s a craft to what she has put together, a creativity that allows field behavior to enter into the design of lab studies.” Fragaszy stated that she was aiming her remarks at the young people in the audience, but the seasoned primatologists were just as interested in hearing about her journey in primatology and lessons learned.
Fragaszy grew up on a farm in the Catskill Mountains, caring for horses and sheep and participating in 4H. “It was a paradise for a child doing things outside all the time,” she said. “My father taught me to use tools and to make and repair things with my hands.”
At Duke University, Fragaszy discovered primatology, observing lemur mothers and infants as an undergraduate assistant with Peter Klopfer. At the same time, she studied the literature about maternal care and rejection (mainly in nonhuman primates) for a class in Comparative Psychology. This was familiar turf because she had experienced caring for orphaned and rejected lambs growing up with the animals on the farm.
“I wanted to know what science had to say about that,” she said. These experiences led her to graduate study at UC-Davis with Bill Mason. “One of the best decisions I ever made in my life was to join Bill’s lab.” But, her graduate studies took a different direction.
One of her projects was to study the travel paths of squirrel and titi monkeys. Fragaszy laid out paths through captive habitats for the monkeys to get to food and their social partners. She wanted to know whether the monkeys would take shortcuts, which she provided intermittently, to reach their goals.
Her landmark findings? “We found absolutely different responses in both monkeys.”
The titis were very conservative individuals across the board, she discovered, preferring to stick to the known path, whereas the squirrel monkeys were just the opposite, making quick decisions to take the short cuts.
“These animals were so similar in so many ways, but so different in their psychological makeup,” Fragaszy said. These differences relate to each species’ behavioral and social ecology in nature. It was obvious to her that one needed to understand a species’ behavior in nature to understand their behavior in captivity, and vice versa.
1980-81, Fragaszy conducted a field study of wedge-capped capuchins with an NSF postdoctoral fellowship. “I was studying John Robinson’s monkeys looking for tool use. They were always very busy with their hands, but I saw nothing close to tooling. Rather, it was all banging, ripping, tearing and shredding.” Soon after that, she established a captive colony of tufted capuchin monkeys with an initial loan of 11 monkeys from Bill London’s lab: “These monkeys offered a wonderful opportunity to study physical cognition.”
Over the next 10 years, her career took off, with a faculty position at San Diego State and the description of capuchin monkeys in her laboratory making and using probing tools. Together with her first Ph.D. student, Leah Adams-Curtis, she described manipulation strategies used by tufted capuchins, finding that these animals manipulate objects extremely frequently, especially the juveniles.
Fragaszy developed a collaboration with Elisabetta Visalberghi, whom she met at an IPS meeting, studying tufted capuchin monkeys in their respective laboratories. In their first collaborative study, they made a nut board. They sandwiched whole walnuts between two boards, with the top half of each walnut poking out of a hole in the upper board, plus metal and wooden tools of varying cracking effectiveness tethered to the board. By studying capuchins’ activity at the nut board, they concluded that the monkeys were not imitating one another, but rather were learning by experience and getting better at cracking the walnuts themselves. Together, Fragaszy and Visalberghi have since studied social influences on behavior in capuchin monkeys in several more contexts.
Then, she joined the psychology department at the University of Georgia in 1990. With support from NIMH and NICHD, in collaboration with colleagues at the Language Research Center, Georgia State University, she studied the organization of manual activity in capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees. She showed that both species could create a nested series of cups (using children’s toy cups), and both species used a strategy called “subassembly” (stack two cups together, then move the set into or onto a third cup). The monkeys and apes used organized hierarchical sequences of actions, but these were not tied to language (as they were thought to be in humans). Later, she showed that capuchin monkeys could learn to make more frequent use of subassembly, suggesting how humans might come to rely on it more strongly over time. She also studied how capuchins and chimpanzees solved novel alley mazes presented on a computer monitor. Initially chimpanzees made fewer errors than capuchins, but with extended practice, “The capuchins became as good at these tasks as chimps,” she said. “There is a lot of plasticity and adaptability in cognitive processes.”
Much of her early research with capuchin monkeys was included in the book, The Complete Capuchin, that she wrote with Elisabetta Visalberghi and Linda Fedigan and illustrated by Stephen Nash, published in 2004.
In 2005, Fragaszy and colleagues began studying wild capuchin monkeys that use stone hammers to crack palm nuts in Piauí, Brazil (the EthoCebus project; http://www.ip.usp.br/ethocebus/). “Nut cracking is a skill,” she said, showing impressive videos of the monkeys in action cracking open palm nuts. “They show preparatory actions with the stone before striking, use a bipedal stance, and coordinate their body movements throughout the strike to maintain their balance, control the force of their strike, and maintain control of the stone and the nut.” In other words, they do not just grab a stone and whack away at the nut. “They spend a lot of time exploring, handling and turning the stone around in their hands before they use it to crack the nuts,” she said while showing a video of the monkeys doing just that.
Her research published in PLOS ONE in 2013 demonstrated that the monkeys also figure out how to place the nuts strategically in the most stable position on the anvil. Work at her field site in Brazil is ongoing.
Over her career, Fragaszy has amassed 182 collaborators and counting. She retired her laboratory capuchins in 2014 to Jungle Friends Sanctuary in Gainsville, FL.
“I was sad to see them go, but I was happy they went there and I visit them every year.”
She ended her talk by revealing, “I never would have gotten my lab started as I did if I had not talked to Jean Turnquist at the fourth ASP meeting in 1981, in San Antonio, and learned that Dr. London had capuchin monkeys that he might be willing to lend to me.”
Her final advice to young researchers just starting out? “Pick a theme for your research that fascinates you – you will be spending decades thinking about it. Prepare to do things yourself – that is, be self-reliant, persistent, and resilient.”
“Primates and Conservation in the Time of Yellow Fever”
Karen Strier, Ph.D.
Chuck Snowdon introduced his colleague Karen Strier by sharing an anniversary – that her muriqui field study has existed for 36 years. He praised her as an excellent teacher, having earned UW–Madison’s highest research honor, that of Vilas Research Professor, and that she is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Sciences. Strier has published several books, including Primate Behavior Ecology, Primate Ethnography and, just last year, Muriqui. She is currently the president of the International Primatological Society. “She understands the importance of working with local communities on conservation,” he emphasized. “Many of her colleagues and collaborators describe her as the consummate, complete primatologist.”
In her keynote talk, “Primates and Conservation in the Time of Yellow Fever” – a nod to the book Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, Strier began by saying that today’s primatologists need resilience and persistence. “Watching today’s news, we see the Amazon burning, water shortages and temperatures rising,” Strier said. “These crises affect the exact same countries our primates are found in. Their story is our story. We are in an extinction crisis. Out of 504 species, 60% are threatened and 75% are declining.”
Muriqui monkeys live in social, sexual, peaceful egalitarian relationships, thus earning a reputation as the “hippie monkey,” Strier described. “The first population survey of muriquis that we know of was in 1971, when muriquis were considered to be a single species. Since then, the species was split into two, and by 2011, through the National Action Plan for Murqiui Conservation, we are concerned with the conservation of both the northern and southern muriquis.”
After reviewing the history of muriqui taxonomy with the audience, Strier said that we need to learn how to better use more sophisticated taxonomic information in our conservation efforts. She explained how muriqui dispersal plays an important role in conservation. Strier showed slides of disturbed habitat in Minas Gerais, Brazil, revealing how the muriquis’ habitat has been cut or logged, with lots of disrupted edges.
In the second part of her talk, Strier related these disturbances to primatology more broadly. “Most of the behavioral data has been coming in from populations living in disturbed, altered habitats,” she said. “So the idea that we should only be studying primates in pristine habitats is wrong: we need to study their resilience wherever they live.”
“At my field site, you can climb any ridge and see where the forest ends,” she added. “Yet, you can also see the monkeys. They are resilient. They are able to adapt, which gives them a chance in a changing world.”
In 1982, Strier arrived at what became her long-term field site in Caratinga, Minas Gerais and saw about 50 muriquis in two groups. The Matão Group grew to 130 animals by 2014 in this protected environment: “It’s a closed system. It’s like a Petri dish in a way, an ecological phenomenon, where we can monitor all muriquis that inhabit it.”
By 2010, there were 300 individuals. “One third of the species was in this little forest fragment,” Strier shared. “Along with the population growth, we detected an increase in the use of terrestrial resources.” Strier and her research team also saw a shift from female bias sex ratio to male. They saw an increase in fertility, shorter birth intervals in the females and a relaxed mothering style they believed was due to the mothers being on the ground versus in the trees. Strier showed a video with a mother muriqui quite casually holding her infant while focusing more on munching leaves: “She would never hold onto the baby that carelessly up in the trees.”
Since 2001, the forest has been growing back and was protected by the government as a private reserve. “Everything was looking up,” Strier said. But by 2014-2015, severe drought caused a human and environmental crisis. “There were fires all over the place and the muriquis’ water supply started drying up. They were drinking mud. I was afraid this would interfere with their reproduction. Their mortality went up, but with the birth season, their numbers had recovered.”
But then, in late 2016, another crisis hit, with the outbreak of yellow fever. “In January 2017, I was never so scared,” Strier said. “The forest was just silent. Lots of monkeys died.” She summarized results for a collaborative study showing that 80-90 percent of the howler monkeys and marmosets, and 30 percent of the capuchins were gone, as well as 10 percent of the muriquis – all lost in six months.
“This time, there was no recovery during the birth season,” she said.
The rollercoaster continued, with a muriqui population upturn in 2018, then a downturn again in 2019. “Why is it still declining,” Strier asked. “Is it ongoing ambient stress? Low genetic diversity? Habitat saturation? When we think of resilience, it’s important to realize that, as resilient as these monkeys are, resilience may not be enough.”
Strier shared that she has undergone some changing views with regard to management: “We need both in situ conservation but also active management. There is no hope of this species persisting without intervention.”
Strier has worked hard with collaborators in both field and lab settings, along with long-term Brazilian collaborators Sérgio Lucena Mendes and Carla Possamai. She has worked with Toni Ziegler at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center to study reproductive biology noninvasively in the lab through hormonal assays of urine and feces collected in the field. She has likewise collaborated with Tony Fiore and Paulo Chaves on noninvasive genetics research. Additional field collaborations are underway with Fabiano de Melo and Fernanda Tabacow through Projeto Muriquis do Sossego. These collaborations, she believes, put her and her colleagues in a stronger position to make informed decisions when intervention became necessary.
“In one forest, we saw the last male die. So, in the next forest, Reserva Ibitipoca, we did not wait too long to do something,” Strier said. “There were two males left. De Melo and his colleagues went to another forest and brought a female that was trying to find a new group to join the two lone males in what is ultimately a “soft release” plan.
“I confess I was not always in favor of translocations, but in these cases, intervention might be the only action that will work to recover populations with only a few individuals left,” Strier said.
She added that working with the news media is also critical to these efforts: “One landowner read about our work in O Globo and offered his forest for the muriquis. Although we haven’t taken him up on his offer yet, it is great to know there are people willing to help.”
Citizen science is also important, Strier described. “Within the Caratinga Community, citizens helped us with sighting lists of the primates they had seen before and after the yellow fever outbreak..”
“The muriquis are still on the ground. They are not going back up into the trees,” Strier said. “They have gotten used to their new ways, and I am optimistic their population will recover again.”
And Strier herself has shown a resilience equal to these peaceful primates.
“There is still wonder in this world,” she closed. “We should never underestimate the flexibility of primates. Small populations can show great resilience. And collaborations involving both in situ conservation and active management can make a positive difference.”
“A Working Life: Primates, Turtles, Comic Books and the Sense of Wonder”
Stephen D. Nash, M.A.
Returning to Madison for his third ASP meeting, Stephen D. Nash listened as Karen Strier introduced him as an artist at the forefront of conservation whom she has known since the muriqui (Brachyteles sp.) came into both of their lives in 1982. At that time, they began working together with Russ Mittermeier and Brazilian scientists to create conservation education materials focusing upon the species.
Nash took viewers of his talk through a delightful virtual art gallery tour of the primates, as depicted in everything from an embroidery piece depicting a Barbary Macaque by Mary Queen of Scots from the 16th century to drawings used in modern taxonomy textbooks.
Interweaving slides of these illustrations with descriptions of his own artistic journey, Nash said, “My work would not exist but for the encouragement and advice of others.”
Nash grew up in Holland-on-Sea, Essex, England and was fascinated by comic books and their graphic story-telling techniques. (“They were cheap and readily available in the UK at the time”). He studied how comics were drawn, and also collected cutaway illustrations of the internal workings of vehicles and appliances. These pre-computer hand-drawn pictures – made with triangles, protractors and rulers – inspired his own drawings during childhood, as later did the renderings of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In art school in the 1970s, he produced drawings of articulated dinosaur skeletons, beetles and chimp skulls. Sketching at the London Zoo, he concentrated on herps and primates because he was intrigued that the other visitors’ comments about them were always so extreme – people made the most negative and the most positive observations. “Reptiles and amphibians were considered either beautiful living jewels or dangerous vermin,” he said, “and primates were either repulsive caricatures of ourselves, or admired as our closest relatives.” This led him to want to be an advocate for these two groups of animals.
“Scientific illustrators have a specific task to perform,” Nash explained. “We must show in our work specific diagnostic characters revealing the animal’s taxonomy and anatomy, and just as handwriting reveals information about the writer, these illustrations show whether or not the artist cares about his subject.
In later years, his appreciation of and interest in the work of illustrators from previous centuries has increased, and he has built up an archive of these with assistance from then WNPRC Librarian Larry Jacobsen, as part of The Nash Collection of Primates in Art and Illustration, which is still on line.
Nash showed the works of other artists he admires, including his college tutors John Norris Wood and Edward O. Z. Wade, d’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Sir Peter Scott and Jonathan Kingdon.
Also inspiring to Nash are the paintings by Beatrix Potter, the author who was trained initially as a scientific illustrator, and those by Roger Tory Peterson, who virtually invented the Field Guide format. “Their works are beautiful and accurate” Nash said, “and Nature and the art of the past continues to be strongly influential upon me.”
After his formal art education at the Colchester School of Art, Middlesex University, and the Royal College of Art, he had initially planned to work as a medical illustrator, but changed his career path after his London Zoo sketching experiences.
Since 1982, he has been based at Stony Brook University, New York, in the Anatomical Sciences department, and considers his colleagues there as family. He has worked with such primatologists as Russell Mittermeier, Anthony Rylands, John Oates and Marc van Roosmalen and was the scientific illustrator for Conservation International between 1989 and 2017. His work has appeared in numerous books, scientific articles, and conservation education materials, and was even honored by having a titi monkey named for him – Callicebus stephennashi. In 2004, Nash received the ASP President’s Award and in 2008, he received a Medal from the Primate Society of Great Britain.
Having produced drawings of every primate taxon, Nash allows free use of his images by scientists and students in exchange for advice on how they can be improved. Thus, he has seen his images appear all over the world, in expected, as well as unexpected places: “It has been interesting seeing them as mini-posters on placemats, so children can learn about primates while eating… and it’s quite astonishing to see your illustrations tattooed on people.”
Nash’s favorite primate? The cottontop tamarin. His least favorite? Though it was hard to tell from his talk, he did say that titi monkeys (despite one being named for him), are “rather less interesting… they tend to just sit there, like lumps on a log.”
His favorite medium? Coloured pencils. “Good for drawing with in humid, tropical conditions.” He also received a question about whether he draws directly from nature, or from other reference material such as photographs, to which he responded that he does both, but not at the same time: “Drawing animals while in the wild is very different from drawing them from a photograph, unless they’re a tortoise or something relatively slow-moving, so I try not to work with a camera and art media at the same time. It never turns out well.”
In closing, Nash said, “I have always appreciated scientists, and especially primatologists. You have curiosity, compassion and empathy, not unlike children. We must involve children in our conservation education efforts, to help encourage in them that sense of wonder which I feel is so essential to being human.”
“Fielding Change in Primatology”
Marilyn Norconk, Ph.D.
ASP Past Presidents’ Address
Across her career in primatology, Marilyn Norconk has balanced efforts in teaching, research, and community outreach in the service of science and conservation, said Dorothy Fragaszy, who introduced Norconk, adding that her colleague is a good role model for young primatologists on how to do all of these things well.
“How can we and ASP have a greater impact on primate conservation?” Marilyn Norconk opened. “It’s sometimes viewed as a ‘soft science’ but our hope is that this view is changing… we must integrate behavioral, biological and biomedical science in our efforts.”
Norconk began her field research studies 30 years ago, and she now views the 2000s as a “coming of age” period for having reliable methods to do physiology, genetics and cognition studies in the field. In the 2010s, she added, primatologists now have GPS and satellite imaging to help map travel routes and habitat details for primates.
“But we now also have climate change and other new forces that we need to try to incorporate into our research,” she said. “I hesitated putting up extinction ecology on a slide today, but this is something we need to face. There is not enough reforestation taking place; we are not keeping up.”
The best way to protect primates is to improve the security of people,” Norconk said. “We need to change our focus from studying single species to primate communities, giving more empowerment to the people we work with, and training more people in the local communities to take on more responsibility in their countries.”
Norconk then showed examples of companies breaking conservation agreements in the Amazon, such as an oil company clearing the forest for a road two times wider than legally allowed. She explained that this is happening everywhere and greatly impacts primate behavior and ecology.
Norconk was first in Suriname in 1986, then in 2003 until today, conducting research at Brownsberg Nature Park. “There are eight species of primates there, including under-studied bearded sakis and white-faced sakis. We have been monitoring the movements of monkeys in the vicinity of illegal gold mines in the park. Google earth images compared over a ten-year period show a dramatic increase in forest loss, but thus far we have not been able to detect a clear pattern of change in primate movements. That may occur if species like spider monkeys and bearded sakis, that have very large home ranges, can avoid disturbed areas,” she said.
Satellite images help us to understand the speed of deforestation, Norconk said, adding that China increases their access to logging by providing needed cash to several countries in the tropics, including Suriname. Community-owned forests may be at special risk if forestry regulations are not as strict there as in other logging concessions. “With mining, logging for palm oil plantations and dams being built for hydro-electric power, the forest is disappearing quickly.”
“Trying to buy products without palm oil in them is really difficult,” Norconk said. “A ton of palm oil can be produced in a quarter hectare plot, which is half a football field. Given the commercial nature of the product, palm oil plantations are here to stay. Large-scale agriculture, that includes soybeans, also contributes heavily to deforestation. Loss of habitat was cited as a leading cause of population declines affecting the 25 most endangered primate species identified in 2018.”
Norconk stressed that we need to better understand the effect of the climate crisis on primates. While temperatures here in the U.S. may look average on the whole to many people, causing some complacency over climate change here, the places with the highest primate diversity have recorded the warmest temperatures and greatest impacts from climate change. “We have a perception problem,” she said.
“The entire Amazon is vulnerable and we know little about how primates will respond to increasing temperatures and projected droughts. Will primates be able to migrate to maintain their preferred habitat conditions? We don’t know, but research on other organisms suggests that movement upslope and away from lowlands will impact long-adapted species interactions. Increasing heat and drought means that only the most resilient vegetation will survive. But these are not typical primate foods.”
Maybe howler monkeys and muriquis are the most likely to adapt, she said, as research shows they are behaviorally flexible when compared to other species. While there are few studies of the effects of climate change on primates, slow lorises seem to be impacted by a complex set of conditions that include temperature, wind speed, pollination and nectar production of flowers, illustrating that it is difficult to anticipate the variables that will affect specific primate species.”
Climate change policy and habitat protection policy is highly variable in the world, she said. “So we have to step outside of our comfort zones – get into the streets in the U.S. and expand our classrooms to habitat countries. We need to train local people as leaders, not only as field assistants. We need to empower students and provide training in professional development.”
In Suriname, we have found that students and faculty are open to public lectures, focused short courses on conservation, and field experiences. Norconk next described working with Kathy West (who later won the ASP Outreach Award at the awards banquet) to offer a photography workshop to 30 nine-year olds, providing them with experience “seeing nature” in a local park in the capital city, Paramaribo. “There was such high biodiversity locally but none of the students had ever been there,” Norconk said.
In her closing remarks, Norconk echoed what many ASP speakers had shared and what members were discussing throughout the conference: “We can’t forget the public communication angle – we have to elevate it.”
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Fall 2019 American Society of Primatologists Bulletin, Vol 43, Number 2. For more information about the American Society of Primatologists and its research, conservation and educational mission, please visit asp.org.