Dr Monkey – new primate PhD students join the PPP

The PPP has several new PhD students who have recently started or will be starting their doctoral research on primates at Lajuma soon. Having PhD students in Bush Camp adds an extra dimension to the project’s data collection and also offers additional opportunities for our research assistants and visiting groups to learn and get involved with new methodologies. Some of these PhD students will be analysing data collected from 2011 until now by research assistants who have been volunteering with the project.

Ed Parker – Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK

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Ed researching field voles in  Northumberland, UK.

Ed’s PhD, under the supervision of Dr. Nicola Koyama, primarily focuses on how primates interact with their environment, particularly in fragmented habitats. He is looking at how fragmentation and environmental variables influence home range size and core areas in two wild but habituated groups of samango monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis) in Lajuma, South Africa. By combining ranging data available for the past four years with remotely sensed satellite derived data, he will investigate how primary productivity, rainfall, digital elevation etc. influences monthly and annual home range size and core use areas. Ed will use this data, in addition to phenology and fruit availability data obtained in the field, to try to predict which habitats on a larger scale (e.g. greater Lajuma) are suitable for samango monkeys. Such data will provide important implications for conservation. In addition, Ed will also collect some behavioural data at the field site to investigate how samango monkeys alter their behavioural strategies (anxiety-related behaviour and tension-reduction behaviour e.g. grooming) to deal with potential increases in habitat-related ‘stress’ (e.g. reduced cover) caused by habitat fragmentation. He is also analysing DNA from samango monkey faecal and blood samples to provide insights into male dispersal patterns.

Laura La Barge – University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York, USA

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Laura tracking primates at Lajuma Research Centre

Some of you may recognise Laura because in 2015 she spent 5 months as a primate research assistant for the Primate and Predator Project. It is great to have her back for her PhD data collection!

Laura started to collect data for her PhD in Evolution, Ecology and Behavior in April 2016. In the fall of 2016 she will begin as a teaching assistant. Laura’s current project is looking at whether samango monkeys become less wary of predators as they get closer to human-altered habitats (camps, homes, farmland etc.). Areas with high amounts of human activity typically lack the predators found in other habitats so she is investigating whether this corresponds to a change in the risk assessment behaviour of this prey species. Laura’s future projects and experiments will focus more specifically on anti-predator behaviour and how different factors (predation, human activities, fighting with other monkeys, etc.) might influence behaviour and stress in individuals. Laura’s research is extremely important because there are few areas on Earth untouched by human development. Understanding how species adapt behaviourally to increasing pressure from humans can help us better manage threatened wildlife. Only recently has animal behaviour been seriously integrated into studies of wildlife conservation and this research will help improve that gap.

Andy Allan – Durham University, Durham, UK (in partnership with Newcastle University)

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Andy studying tortoises in the desert near Las Vegas, USA

You will definitely recoginise this face! Andy has been working at the PPP since February 2015 as the Primate Research Coordinator. In October 2016 he will be starting his PhD research alongside his current role with the PPP.

Andy’s research aims to quantify the producer-scrounger tendencies of individual baboons, and to determine how this influences the information they collect when vigilant. Specifically, whether the collection of social information is compatible with collecting multiple information types concurrently (e.g., anti-predator, environmental, foreign troop presence). Beyond this he is interested in exploring the individual differences in time spent vigilant and frequency of glances during foraging scenarios. For example, low ranking individuals may reduce the amount of time spent vigilant in order to increase food intake, but frequency of glances could increase (very short routine assessments of the environment) to check that a dominant scrounger isn’t approaching. So the aim is to understand how these dynamics influence the information collected by each individual and its effect on their foraging success. Depending on the context, the results from this study may mean that baboons don’t always need to be actively or routinely vigilance of their environment, the act of monitoring their neighbours may allow them to detect threats efficiently. The results could therefore help explain some of the intricacies of social foraging behaviour in baboons.

Finally we asked Ed, Laura and Andy to share a bit about why their study species are interesting and about some of the experiences they have had working with the PPP so far. Here’s some of their answers:

  • As tiny infants samango monkeys jump impossible distances in the high canopy and (almost!) always land perfectly on the next branch. It’s amazing to watch! They are also the cutest primates at lajuma (fact).
  • Earlier this season I was standing on a large rock in the mist-belt forest at the end of the day and started thinking about how one of the lajuma students recently saw a leopard on a camera trap nearby. It’s easy to make yourself scared over nothing when you’re alone in the forest at night but in a rush all of the monkeys fled into the highest points of the canopy and started alarm calling!  That was when I decided it was late enough to leave…
  • Baboons have HANDS FOR FEET!
  • One minute the baboon troop could be digging up grass roots, the next they can be tearing apart a bushbuck, or sprinting up the side of a mountain or cliff. It’s pretty exhausting following them, but if you stick it out you can be rewarded with some pretty cool sights, like seeing juveniles taking turns to dive into streams whilst playing, or the troop ganging up and chasing leopards away. Due to their inquisitive nature they often get themselves in a bit of trouble too, like bold individuals investigating crowned eagle nests (the eagle started swooping towards the troop to scare them off), or juveniles sitting in a circle around a snouted cobra, surrounding it as it tried to get away, I thought they were going to try and play with it at one point!
  • Lajuma is obviously a beautiful place, but it’s a tough place to follow baboons! I think the first 6 months charging through the bush getting bloody bruised along the way was a bit crazy… at the time we didn’t know the easy ways down the cliffs, so we basically tried to climb everything, leaving us quivering wrecks by the end of the day! I think the best part has been seeing the different personalities of the baboons over the year I’ve been here, and having the chance to learn IDs for lots of juveniles and watch how they begin to integrate into the adult hierarchy. 

Good luck to our new primate PhD students!!

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