Conversations in Science
for K-12 Educators

A program conceived and organized by the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with the collaboration of the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Edgewood Sonderegger Science Center.

Thursday, November 10, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation of Primates

Karen B. Strier
Department of Anthropology, UW-Madison

About the conversation:

Nonhuman primates provide unique insights into the behavioral biology of humans. Yet, nearly one-third of the world's nonhuman primates are in danger of extinction due to human activities. Hunting and poaching are decimating primate populations in some regions of the tropics, but the most ubiquitous threats come from the loss and alteration of their habitats. Why are primates so vulnerable to these pressures, and how can basic research on their behavior and ecology contribute to protecting primates and the tropical forests that they need to survive?

Long-term field studies can provide critical data on the habits of primates that are necessary to developing informed conservation plans. These data range from details on their social behavior and dispersal patterns, to their feeding requirements and life histories. New developments in non-invasive techniques have also made it possible to learn about the hormones that regulate fertility and mediate stress, and therefore can contribute to assessing the long-term viability of small populations in the wild.

I will use my 23-year field study on one of the most critically endangered primates, the northern muriqui ( Brachyteles hypoxanthus ) of Brazil 's Atlantic forest, to discuss some of the most striking ways in which basic research can inform and contribute to conservation efforts. Key discoveries about muriquis, such as their unusually peaceful, egalitarian societies, eclectic diets, the trade-offs mothers make to insure that their infants surivive, and the effects of female-biased sex ratios and dispersal on population demography, also illustrate how behavioral comparisons between human and nonhuman primates can expand our perspectives about ourselves.

About the professor:

Karen Strier is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on understanding the behavior and ecology of wild primates from a comparative perspective, and on applying this knowledge to primate conservation. Since 1982 she has coordinated an international field project on one of the last remaining populations of one of the world's most critically endangered primates, the muriqui monkeys of Brazil 's Atlantic forest. She has trained more than 35 Brazilian students on this project, and has been instrumental in conservation efforts there. Her research has also brought this elusive species, and the comparative perspectives they provide, into mainstream primatology. Professor Strier has received numerous awards for her research, including her recent election to the National Academy of Sciences, and a Hilldale Award, Kellet Mid-Career Award, and a Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award from the UW-Madison. She has also been recognized by the Brazilian Primatological Society for her contributions to training Brazilian scientists.

References and Suggested Readings:

1) Strier, K.B. 1999. Faces in the Forest: The Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil . Cambridge , MA : Harvard University Press.

2) Strier, K.B. 2003. Primate behavioral ecology: From ethnography to ethology and back. American Anthropologist 105:16-27.