Issues in Studying Primate Behavior

Collecting data at Cayo Santiago

Collecting data at Cayo Santiago

Primatology is an interdisciplinary field: it lies at the intersection of biology,  psychology, and anthropology. In the US, most primatologists are within anthropology departments. But this is not the case in Europe, where primatologists are frequently based in psychology or ethology/zoology/biology programs. Although primatologists rely on information and techniques from all three disciplines, there are some differences in approaches and ultimate research goals.

Strier (PBE) explains that the original goal of early primatologists was driven by anthropocentric approaches–they studied primates to learn more about human behavior, anatomy, and evolution. This is still one of the major goals of anthropological primatology. However, early studies often used certain species as analogues for early human or hominid behavior (referential models). This led to a focus on baboons (due to their savanna environment) and chimpanzees (because they were our closest relatives).  In the 1980s, in conjunction with behavioral ecology approaches, there was a shift to studying how evolutionary pressures, particularly ecological factors, influence behaviors (discussed in detail in Tooby and DeVore, 1987).

There has also been a switch from an “ethnographic” approach (detailed recordings of behavioral observation) to systematic approaches (largely due to Altmann 1974, in which Jean Altmann outlined different sampling methods to observe behavior while reducing bias). These approaches allow us to quantitatively analyze results. You will be trying out several of these methods in your midterm project.

However, Strier (in PBE and PE) also brings up a number of complications to studying primates. Early studies focused on studying primates in “pristine” environments, such as undisturbed rainforest. However, there has been a shift to recognize that such environments do not exist, and the level of anthropogenic (human-influenced) disturbance an important variable in studying primate behavior. Primates can be studied in several different study and conditions sites (I’ve expanded on some of the categories Strier addressed):

2) Field studies on habituation primates without provisioning

3) Field studies with on primates habituated through provisioning

4) Free-ranging provisioned, managed groups (such as Cayo Santiago)

5) Captive studies in social groups with minimal interventions (such as at zoos)

6) Captive studies with frequent interventions (such as in lab studies that focus on experimental approaches).

There is grey area between each of these categories, and they often grade into each other. For example, primates that are not intentionally provisioned may raid crops, garbages, or tourist sites (where they can frequently either steal or beg for handouts).  Similar, zoos alter group positions for breeding purposes, use operational training to monitor health and welfare, and may approve experiments or interventions that may be enriching.

How might these different study environments effect primate behavior? What are the pros and cons of each? Is one approach better than the others? Is there any way to truly study primates without potentially affecting their behavior?

Evita Rosario Elvis

spider monkey huddle


Another issue is how we deal address anthropomorphism, which is the tendency to project human emotions or motivations on non-humans. On one extreme, this includes anthropomorphic characters (for example, Goofy is heavily anthromorphized, while Pluto is given more dog-like behaviors), and treating inanimate objects as you would humans (such as yelling at your computer and telling it to behave). But the other extreme is applying them to primates and other animals. However, there is also the concern of anthropodenial, in which humans deny the similarities between themselves and animals. If primatologists try to reduce all anthropomorphism (in an attempt to be objective and not project human-like motivations on the primates), they may fail to recognize some of cognitive and social traits we share.  Primatologists walk a thin line between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial . Sometime we use phrasing to distance our behaviors from our study subjects (such as saying monkeys “huddle” and “embrace” when the same behaviors are “cuddle” and “hug” if we were describing human behavior). Other times there are problems with attributing human terms to primate behavior (such as calling one-male groups, multi-female groups “harems” or saying that subordinate male orangutans “rape” females).

 Can we say that a chimp attacked another chimp because “he wanted revenge” because of receiving an attack the previous day?  Is it really anthropomorphic to attribute similar emotions and motivations to anthropoid primates? How much can we infer about their thoughts, motivations, and feelings? How do we prevent ourselves from inaccurately interpreting their internal states by projecting our own internal states on our study subjects?

El Zota entrance

El Zota entrance

In the first chapter of Primate Ethnographies, Strier introduces some of the themes that will run throughout the book. Her objective is to address the how field primatology is enmeshed within a greater sociocultural context. This requires that field researchers consider and address how anthropogenic  influence shape primate behavior, ecology, and demography. All of these factors are intertwined with conservation.

How does Strier believe an anthropological grounding benefits primate research? How can field primatologists integrate their intellectual objectives with their conservation objectives? How can local human populations influence, contribute, or impede primate field research? How can primatologists work with people to ensure that their research and conservation objections do not conflict with local humans’ cultural traditions and livelihoods?

There are many questions raised here, and you do not to address all of them at once. Address a few related questions, and we will let the discussion flow from there.


About Dr. Michelle A. Rodrigues

I am a primatologist/biological anthropologist who studies comparative social behavior and endocrinology. My dissertation research focused on stress and friendship in female spider monkeys. Most of my graduate research was conducted at El Zota Biological Field Station, with a little help from the spider monkeys at Brookfield Zoo, IL. I have also studied howler monkeys, rhesus monkeys, bonobos, and chimpanzees, as well as participated in studies on gorillas, pachyderms, and big cats. Currently, I am a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois, where I am examining how female friendship and social support mediate stressors experienced by teenager girls and female scientists. I've taught courses in introductory biological anthropology, world prehistory, and co-instructed a field course in primate behavior and conservation at El Zota. I love teaching about primates and evolution!
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57 Responses to Issues in Studying Primate Behavior

  1. clifmm13 says:

    The different study conditions can alter primate behavior in many different ways, and they both have pros and cons. Studying primates in their natural habitat can give you a better idea of what they eat and how they hunt and obtain food. However, it can be more difficult to study their behavioral patterns and relationships this way because it can be difficult to watch them. Your presence may affect their behavior as well. Provisioned settings can make this more easy to study ,but then you can’t be sure that the setting isn’t affecting their behavior as well. For this reason I think it is always better to study primates in the wild rather than in a captive environment. There is no way to know for sure if you are influencing their behavior or not, but I think studying them in their native habitat is the best way to learn about them. Not only for the research ,but for the primate’s sake.

    • There’s been a shift away from using provisioning at wild sites. Originally it was the technique used in early studies of chimpanzees and bonobos, and the provisioning sped up habituation time. Sometimes, habituation can take a while–Jill Pruetz took about 5 years to habituate her chimps, and it is the only successfully habituated community of savannah chimpanzees. Others have been attempting habituation 10+ years, but they haven’t had success.

      Provisioning is often easier to bring out dominance relationships (or sexual behaviors for Bonobos)! But it does alter their feeding ecology and their view of humans

  2. Sara Greene says:

    When it comes to studying wild primates it is important to take into account that there are few, if any, primate habitats that have not been altered by human activities so when it does come to studying wild primates we should take approaches that involve minimal human involvement. I think that when trying to learn about primates natural behaviors we should avoid provisioned settings and captive settings. Provisioned settings, designated feeding sites where food is provided, do not allow scientist to view primates natural behaviors when it comes to finding food, it also alters their daily habits because they know that food will be provided for them so scientist miss this aspect. However, provisioned settings stimulate primates to interact more frequently accelerating our identification of social patterns. Captive settings greatly alter a primates natural behavior. Although enclosures are made to look like the primates natural habitat, they lack predators and other outside forces that may also affect a primates life. There is also the concern that the behaviors observed in captivity reflect extreme responses to their housing conditions. Captive settings do however allow for better observation conditions. Studies on unprovisioned primates tend to be better suited when it comes to observing primate behavior as a response to seasonal distribution of food and grouping patterns. It allows scientist to see how primates adapt and react to their changing environments. But, even under “natural” circumstances it is important to take note of recent changes in habitat due to human involvement that may have altered a primates otherwise natural routine.

    • Small amounts of provisioning in the wild can make it possible to do field experiments. For example, a study by Paul Garber annd colleagues set up a cognition task, where the capuchins had to figure out how to access the banana at the bottom of the box. In these cases, I think is very important to make these feeding/testing platforms are set in various places in the forest, so it because the equivalent of some dispersed feeding trees.

    • charlottegable says:

      I agree that provisioned settings alters daily habits, but I still think they have merit in that they can help to speed up identification of patterns among the group as well as see innovations that the group has made, like how the macaque monkeys in Japan learned to wash their sweet potatoes which were given to them. Although I suppose if we provide the food in an artificial setting, we do not truly know if these actions are “natural”, but we can still analyze the resulting behavior.

      • shawmk11 says:

        But I wonder what are you truly gaining by studying a behavior that is not natural to the species? You may be gaining some knowledge, but its not truly applicable, its an exception or an outlier.

      • That gets into the issue whether there is anything truly “natural.” If the primates are engaging in a behavior, it is within the range of their behavioral repertoire. It may be a response to pressures caused bt humans activities, but as long as that’s recognized, it can still be valuable. For example, my current project is a comparison of spider monkeys, chimp and bonobo social relationships in captivity. In that situation, though they are clearly constrained by a different environment, it is easier to see how they form, and maintain relationships when they aren’t constrained by forage and travel time. I’m looking for the potential upper-range of social interactions, rather than what is species-typical in the wild.

  3. pounmp13 says:

    I think it would be very difficult not to assign human characteristics to primates while attempting to study them. It’s difficult to understand their behaviors from their perspective, yet their motives are most likely driven by different needs than ours. In the different studies and condition sites, how do the researchers account for the bleeding of condition sites into their analysis of primate behavior? If a tourist were to feed a primate who was part of a study of primates without provisions, how would it effect the experiment?

    • It is nearly impossible to account for all condition sites in their analysis–every site, captive and wild, has its differences. The few exceptions I can think of are very controlled lab (and occasionally zoo–the Edinburgh zoo has two sections of mixed squirrel monkey/brown capuchin groups to ensure control of variables for comparative analysis.

  4. cavakn13 says:

    Different study environments are tricky because it is almost impossible to know if the behaviors exhibited by the primates are how they would behave in their natural habitat or if their behavior is altered in response to the human influence on their habitat (food supply, direct human presence/contact, habitat boundaries, etc.) Field studies on habituation primates without provisioning appear to be the most natural setting, however in that case it takes longer for the primates to become habituated to human presence. In the other extreme, captive studies with frequent intervention, the primates are perhaps more social than they would be in their natural environment, and it is difficult to distinguish between or notice differences between behavior elicited by their captive environment and normal behavior that is exhibited in the wild. I think the best way to accurately interpret primate behavior is to compare the behavior in many different types of study environments, looking out for deviations that might result from human influence or the effects of a limited habitat. If behavior in a species is similar in many different study environments, that behavior is more likely to be natural.

  5. shawmk11 says:

    Duncan and I agree that you can never truly study primates without affecting their behavior. Any interaction between humans and the primates is a new scenario that would not have otherwise occurred in that primate’s regular life. Thus any interaction between scientists and their primate subjects significantly affects how those primates will react even if they are habituated to the scientists’ presence.

    • daunjc says:

      I agree as well. Like you said, the process of habituation is an encounter that the primate group would not have had normally, whether or not they become habituated, so all actions afterwards may differ slightly from what they would have normally done. Although I guess it is possible that after habituation the group does return to its “normal” everyday actions/interactions. But then, how do we know what’s considered normal if we have to interact to find out?

      • hermdj11 says:

        I don’t think we can ever know what is “normal” if by normal you mean behavior displayed without human contact. The only way to study primate behavior would be with the backhand knowledge that this behavior was done with human contact. We can acknowledge the social traits that they share with one another but I’m afraid that what we see and what happens without our observations may not be the same

    • Sara Greene says:

      I agree, when studying primates even in the wild you will never get to see their regular life do to the influence your presence has. I think because of this it is important to take into account responses that could have occurred due to human involvement. Also, following primates for a long stretch of time could potentially reduce this issue because primates become accustomed and comfortable reverting back to their natural ways.

      • Part of the issue is that if the primates aren’t habituated enough, they get stressed and get angry at being watched or followed (at the beginning of my field research at El Zota, I had quite a few males throw sticks at me). But, when they are habituated enough to let you follow them and stick around, they’ve also accepted you as some sort of “person” that joins their group/subgroup sometimes. Barbara Smuts realized during her field studies on baboons that they baboons made a place for her within their normal traveling formation, and that suggested they gave her a rank. Jill Pruetz has told me that it seems that her chimps respect her as the dominant female of the humans involved in her chimp site. And in my field study at El Zota, I’ve had subadult seeming to play hide and seek/chase games (we named her Houdini for that), and another female with offspring stopped and waited for me to cross the swamp.

    • johndf11 says:

      Though we have come to the conclusion that there is no way to approach studying primate without affecting their behavior due to the creation of encounters that otherwise would not have existed and therefore force the primates to react in ways that may not be characteristic of their species, we decided that the best approach would have to be Field studies on habituation primates without provisioning. We think this is the best way because although it does not eliminate the interaction (no matter how hard one tries) but it does diminish the impact significantly.

      • I believe that in certain situations, captive behavior can be a better location for certain topics. For example, foraging constraints in chimpanzees and spider monkeys often means that females are alone with offspring, in small groups, or by themselves. In captivity, they have more time and access for social interactions, which can make it easier to accumulate more data on specific topics. For example, post-conflict behavior is much easier to captivity in the wild (in the field, I found that it was easy to miss the actual conflict due to visibility, and sometimes the monkeys were too stressed to be followed right after.

      • charlottegable says:

        I agree that this is probably the best way. There is no way to eliminate human impact completely, but habituation without provisioning is definitely the closest to that. But also an important thing to consider with this approach is that we must also be aware of the history of the habitat and if the habitat has been recently altered. Because even if the primatologists themselves are careful to have little impact, other local humans in the area might not be.

    • cavakn13 says:

      Doesn’t habituation run the risk of the primates getting too comfortable and too used to humans? And with provisioning, isn’t there a risk of the primates becoming dependent on the humans for food if the study lasts long enough? How do primatologists avoid that?

  6. hermdj11 says:

    The pros of field studies on habituation primates without provisioning is that you are attempting to observe primates in the most “pristine” environment as possible. From this you can gather information on how they gather food, what kinds of food they gather, and whether or not there is sharing within a group. However, the cons are that the environment will never be pristine with researchers present so there may be a difference in behavior between what the researcher observes and what actually occurs.

  7. charlottegable says:

    In regards to the last question relating to Primate Ethnographies, I think that Strier believes that having a connection to anthropology makes primate research in the field more introspective than other natural sciences or hard sciences. I also think that an anthropological grounding helps in that it gives primatologists a better understanding of how the primates in the wild interact and are affected by nearby humans. Having this understanding of the interrelated nature of humans and primates is useful in analyzing its effects on field research itself, and gives primatologists the opportunity to educate local people on their own research. Strier mentioned in the chapter that local Brazilian students took an interest in long-term field study, and were continually active in the conservation of the Muriquis that were being studied. Instilling a respect and concern for primates among local people is essential in conservation, since these people inhabit the area and can affect local government policies. An example of a government policy that was mentioned in the chapter was the initiation Brazilian National Action Plan for the Conservation of Muriquis. Without the local Brazilian students, this action plan perhaps would not have come to be, which just shows the importance of local human populations on field research and conservation objectives.

    • hermdj11 says:

      I think you are right when you explained how Strier believes that primate research is more introspective than the hard sciences. When I read this I understood it to say that anthropology and the ability to acknowledge social traits is what makes primatology a very balanced discipline because being too objective may stop us from making qualitative assessments on the subjects.

      • There is a large trend now towards community-based conservation, in which primate conservation projects occur in concert with the community. They may set up funds to assist school fees, build/pay for housing, or help change the subsistence patterns from bushmeat to other animals. Others include local people by employing them in various capacities to manage. engage with, or support their research. But some community conservation projects have gone well, while others did not succeed.

        Do you think it is possible to be too introspective? How can affect the research?

      • charlottegable says:

        In response to Dr. Rodrigues’ comment in this thread, I think that there is a danger of being too introspective. Since biological anthropology and primatology are so rooted in biology, being too introspective can possibly cause some to deviate to much from the objective facts and underlying biological processes of the primates themselves. Like all things, there must be a balance, in this case it is between the subjective and objective.

  8. I also agree that nearly all types of field studies do impact the actions of the primates being studied. However, I was wondering about the pros and cons of indirect studies, possibly using remotely setup video cameras. Would it be practical to study primates through remote video cameras? To me, this seems like the least invasive way to study primate behavior.

    • daunjc says:

      I’m not an expert but from what I’ve seen (granted through horrible reality TV and some other random sources) it would be rather costly and could become useless if the group is constantly moving around. Plus a camera can only see so much, unless you use higher-end cameras or specially designed ones, which then raises the costs again (I don’t know if this kind of research would be grant based though I assume so and I also don’t know how much a grant like this would allow for budgeting). But if you could find a group that doesn’t move much and the grant allowed for that kind of budget then I would agree that this could capture more information than the human eye could at a single moment and possibly be less intrusive (though the presence of the cameras may also cause curiosity or fear in the animals, which may mean they need habituation to the cameras too.)

      • I think the idea of setting up cameras would benefit in a sense because there is no real human disturbance, but as mentioned it takes away from true observation. The camera can only record so much, and there would be a lot of missing information because of that. I also feel like relying on a tapes recordings to analyze primate behavior would be subject to great error due to possible misinterpretation.

      • hermdj11 says:

        I agree with Jacob that the photography and video would be a nice non-intrusive way to study primates. From the looks of this conversation I would say that we have come to the conclusion that intrusion will always be a factor when studying behavior. Like Jacob said you would need to find a group that doesn’t move much and it would be difficult to capture the whole behavior because most groups are mobile. I am not really familiar with the subject but I’m pretty sure that a majority of note-worthy interactions occur during movements from one place of refuge to another. Cameras would be hard pressed to capture all of these movements and interactions. So like Duncan said earlier I believe that the best way to study interaction and behavior is to do field research on habituation without provisioning food. This way we can note all interactions as close as possible even when they are mobile.

      • daunjc says:

        I didn’t think about that final part, Markecia! But that also brings into account the variable that equipment malfunctions constantly and the cameras may not capture anything at all.

      • I have seen some great presentations at meetings in the past with using camera traps. But they are expensive, and usually only catch glimpses. And for arboreal primates, you have to find ways to safely place the camera up high in the tree, and unless there are regular trees used for sleeping sites, it’s very hit or miss. However, if you have great recordings of primate activities, it is sometimes easier to view and code via video when things happen quickly. However, that applies for to videorecording during focal sampling. Camera traps have worked very well to census terrestrial animals that are shy (such as jaguars and tapirs), but to accumulate sufficient behavioral data, it doesn’t work. I will look though for some pictures to show–I remember seeing a great assortment of primate and other animal “selfies” taken by the camera traps!

    • A brief note regarding video recordings–it doesn’t work if you are chasing primates through the forest, but can be useful to record very quick series of interactions (such as when bonobos get fed at the zoo, and they immediately engage in a number of socio-sexual encounters in a matter of seconds). The same thing is true of aggression–when it involves multiple individuals, it’s hard to see who is doing what. Slowing down the video makes it easier to easier to see these things. If I pursue research on bonobo social behavior, I think I would need to record to just get exact seconds of socio-sexual behavior (they are often VERY quick)

  9. evannt12 says:

    I find the shift from observing in “pristine” settings to the most natural settings to be so interesting. The sentiment now in regards to influencing the behavior or structure of objects being observed is now somewhat taboo and discouraged. It’s funny that both archeologists and anthropologists have had similar histories there in a desire to present the “perfect ideal”. I found the discussion about the link between anthropodenial and anthropomorphism really interesting. Mainly because I’ve always hated the scientific jargon used with primate behavior. I’ve always felt that it puts an unnecessary barrier between our species and primates. But I never realized that it’s a sort of catch 22. We want to recognize these animals who are our kin but I now see that it’s equally important not to project onto them the habits and customs that we have developed within our own culture.

    • I think that’s an important point you bring up. I feel as though the efforts being made to create or present the “perfect ideal” pull us further away from the reality of what we find in our research. It’s also interesting that we feel the need to separate ourselves from primates in so many ways, subjecting them to experiments in settings such as labs, but also look to them as a kin in their natural environment and observe them to learn more about human behavior, anatomy and evolution.

      • In particular, primate researcher leading to more invasive/biomedical research tend to lean in the anthrodenial direction. I I think its how they distance themselves enough to be able to to do that sort of work.

        I was actually working on a manuscript about grooming and embraces, and I found it hard to describe operationally without reference the human motions of hugs. So I included that the observable behavior is very close, and in the discussion I need to address how the behavior functions in social relationship in a similar manner to hugs in humans.

  10. An environment altered by humans will always be subject to effects in primate behavior. Field studies on habitation without provisioning seems as though it may be a better alternative than studying with provisioning because the act of provisioning or even knowing a third party is present may cause the primates to stray away from particular areas (and even some unpredictable behaviors). For example, provisioning could effect a primate’s eating routine or even diet in a sense if a crew of primatologists occupy an area abundant in fruit. This is turn will cause the primates to no longer use this area or other major conflict. I think a zoo could be worse of the primate environments because it allows intervention and takes away from the authenticity of the primates habitat and research. If the effort is to study their behavior through observation then why should any kind of intervention, whether it be zoo or lab, be necessary?

    • hermdj11 says:

      I think that certain research questions may require captivity and intervention that we see in zoos and laboratories. Scientifically I know that different settings can intervene in experiments. I am not sure if I’m absolutely right on this but I think the same can be said when studying behavior and I think that these interventions can be used to answer more specific questions than just “how do these primates live in their natural habitat?”.

      • berkgc13 says:

        I agree that scientific studies would probably require captivity and intervention. I think what that leads to is more outside of the realm of primate behavior studies. I don’t think that the goal of observing primates behaving naturally can be met in these contrived settings.

    • wilkma11 says:

      I agree with the point that there will always be some sort of behavioral effect when humans enter into the world of primates. Strier also talks about how early studies of primates can be difficult for new researchers because the primates need to be habituated to a new presence, but isn’t that in essence affecting their behavior? I think you raise a good point, especially about how provisioning can extremely alter behavioral patterns.

      I suppose one upside of a lab or zoo (although I hate to say it) would be just the opposite – manipulation of settings. Supposing researchers can be accurate enough, simulated scenarios can be good predictors of behavior, I would think. There might not be good opportunities to observe certain situations in the natural world and labs can provide a means of experiencing those situations.

      I agree with your comments on zoos!

  11. clifmm13 says:

    In the second question, I don’t think it is fair to label that particular behavior as revenge because it could have been a coincidence , and there is no way of knowing if the chimp felt vengeful or not. That being said I think it is natural to assign human characteristics to primates because they are so similar to us. We want to better understand them , so comparing them to us and giving them human characteristics is a way to better understand them. Like I said earlier it is unfair to say that that chimp was seeking revenge, but I think it is appropriate to note that he was portraying revenge like behaviors.

    • pounmp13 says:

      I agree with you that it would not be fair to label that behavior as revenge because the chimp could have other motives for attacking, such as attempting to prove dominance over the chimp or perhaps the original aggressor was trespassing on something the other chimp viewed as his. It is difficult to truly know the motives behind most primate behaviors.

      • I personally don’t see a problem with describing a primate’s behavior as vengeful Obviously, the primate could have been acting on some impulse completely foreign to us that we have no word to describe. However, if the primate acts in a manner most similar to what we would describe in a human as revenge, I think it’s okay to make an assumption based on our own experiences and label the chimp’s actions as vengeful. We must just remember that it is an assumption.

    • Knowledge of that social history of those chimps can make it easier to assess potential motivations. Chimps have a lot of drama, coalitonary aggression, and will often recruit allies at a later time to aggress against another chimpanzee. Frans de Waal’s book, “Chimpanzee Politics” describes some of these processes in detailed based on captive chimpanzees.

  12. wilkma11 says:

    I imagine that one of the hardest parts about the actual observation process would be severing anthropomorphic notions of behavior from non-human primate behavior such as in the notion of “revenge” that was raised in the original post.

    I believe a key characteristic that makes us “human” is our ability to recognize our thoughts and emotions (our internal being) and thus be able to make decisions or assumptions based on those schema. Attributing these labels, such as revenge or sadness or even love, is athropocentric. While this practice may not necessarily be inaccurate all the time, it still assumes that other beings experience the same emotions and motivations as we do.

    If I were a practicing primatologist, I don’t think I would be able to abandon my anthropomorphic tendencies, at least at first. How are we to observe unspoken behavior without using our past experiences to make interpretations? I think that it is important to recognize these tendencies to make observations as accurate as possible. Aside from using strictly (non-theoretical) biological processes, I’m not sure how else we would be able to explain behavior without using our own labels, anthropocentric as they may be.

    • charlottegable says:

      I agree that severing our human emotions and anthropomorphic tendencies is difficult. You can avoid this by simply recording the behaviors of the primates themselves, but in order to make that higher leap onto why they perform certain behaviors and making attempts to explain the behaviors, it is almost inevitable that you stumble back into human behavioral notions like “revenge”. I think the most that one can do is recognize that they have these preconceived ideas of human emotion, and take that into account when explaining behavior. Acknowledging bias is the essential first step, since I do not think humans can be completely objective in studying animals so similar to ourselves.

      • shawmk11 says:

        I agree, I think it’s important to realize what our wording implies to ourselves. Using words like vengeance, or rape, implies something about what the primates are doing. I think using more biologically specific terms would help eliminate the preconceived ideas of human emotion from the realm of the primates. For example, you could say a large male took the fruit forcefully from the female, as opposed to saying he “stole” it.

    • johndf11 says:

      I think you address a very interesting and relevant point here: what do we do with the data if not interpret it? If we take our observations and recorded data and attach no inferences, hypotheses, or theories, does the data hold any value? I agree that what separates us from non-human primates is our recognition of our emotions behind our actions but if we do not attribute similar motives to the actions of other primates, what are we doing in the field of primatology? If we are conscious of our anthropomorphic tendencies then maybe, as you said, we can make more accurate observations and our awareness of such tendencies could allow us to relate human behavior to primate behavior in an attempt to explain the behaviors. It could not be taken as a universal truth but maybe more of a theory of the bigger picture, if there is one.

      • pounmp13 says:

        Your idea of taking the data and making it more of a theory of the bigger picture is a good idea. As we can never truly make observations without altering the primates’ behavior, using the data to make general theories instead of using it to make truths allows more leeway in understanding their behavior.

  13. For some reason I cannot reply to Rodrigues’ reply to Jonhdf11, but I just wanted to add: Rodrigues you mention the fact that primates may not be habituated enough which results in stress and anger from the primates at first but later they begin to warm up to being followed and watched and recorded. Wouldn’t you say the act of habituating to the humans in their environment constitutes as a human-influenced disturbance? (Having seen their initial reactions to being filmed?)

    • Yes, it definitely is a form of disturbance, and we often need to be careful in determining when to follow, and when to give them their space. Jill Pruetz has a policy that only the males are followed, so that they don’t cause stress that could influence female fertility and pregnancy (females are still observed if they are hanging out with the males though. During my masters project, I originally wanted to study social behavior in both infants and juveniles. However, the females with juveniles were usually not perturbed by me. However, females with infants were terrified of me and fled, so I decided to focus on the juveniles and not disturb mothers with infants–but that probably meant I was influencing subgrouping behavior (because those females with infants would chose to avoid the subgroups I study. By the time I did dissertation research, most females with infants were comfortable with me watching and following them.

  14. stewmm0 says:

    Because I am both a psychology and anthropology double major, I have a lot of background in both ethnographic research methods for anthropology, as well as research methods and statistics used in psychology (including observational, correlational, experimental, and survey studies). I have had the advantages and disadvantages of each approach ingrained into me over and over again for the last four years and have had to conduct my own research studies for several classes as well, so I am pretty comfortable with research design and methods.

    The easiest way for researchers to be able to attribute a behavior or reaction (dependent variable) entirely to a certain stimulus (independent variable), they must be able to eliminate any other outside factors that could influence the subject (confounding variables). Labs and contrived settings are usually the easiest locations to eliminate these factors that could affect the results of a study. Through control groups and very careful research design, researchers are often able to remove or at least account for and attribute most of the error that could influence their results. However, with primate research, I think that perhaps the lab setting itself could be somewhat influential on the behavior exhibited in these studies. A major concern in psychology is external validity, or whether the results of a study can be applied to other individuals in natural settings (outside of the lab). Strier brings up the point that many animals used to be captured from the wild for research due to high demand for subjects. I think it is extremely likely that these animals would behave entirely differently in a lab setting, especially when interacting with humans who took them out of their homes in the natural world. Today, almost all animals in lab research are captive bred and do not know their natural habitats. However, how can we attribute the behavior we observe in labs to animals who know nothing but the wild?

    This is where I believe that observational and ethnographic research in the field is particularly important. Although it is far more difficult to control for confounding variables, it seems to me that these environments hold much more validity. I have learned in psychology that there are certain effects in which subjects behave differently because they know they are being tested, and some will even alter their behavior because they believe they know what the researcher wants and will try to appease them. These effects seem to occur more often in contrived lab settings where subjects are more aware that they are being studied. Although it is almost impossible to remain completely hidden from primates while observing them in the wild, I think that it is easier to eliminate these effects in the field by either being more discreet or allowing the subjects to get more used to human presence, making them more comfortable to behave as they normally would.

  15. stewmm0 says:

    Strier also mentions how the subject of anthropological research of primates has changed over the last 30 years (at the end of chapter 1 of PBE). She says that now, more studies are focused on conservation and ethics related to biomedical research. It is clear that humans are encroaching on nature more and more, and anthropologists recognize that there are almost no areas of the world that are “pristine” or untouched by human behavior and influence. This ecological change in environment can be gauged by “indicator species” to assess how much damage has occurred. This can help us save the entire habitat or niche, including all of the species of plants and animals that coexist with these indicator species in that ecological environment. I think an interesting topic for future research would be to focus on the species of primates that are considered particularly adaptive, such as macaques. It would be interesting to see what happens when their environment changes or population pressures push them out of a geographic region or area, and to observe the changes in their behavior in order to adapt. We learned from “Life in the Trees,” the film we watched in class, that macaques and some other species are capable of learning new techniques and behaviors from each other. It would be interesting to see how when pushed into a new environment, how rapid and pervasive new behaviors become in order to adapt and survive.

    • So many good points! One of the reasons macaques (particularly rhesus and long-tailed) are so common as research subjects is in biomedical research is that they are pretty hardy…they can adjust to a variety of different conditions better than other some other primates (and there are quite a few primates zoos are unable to maintain in captivity). We often joke that macaques are the rats of the primate order.

  16. Fantastic discussion everyone! Feel free to comment later if any other thoughts about this topic come to mind.

  17. berkgc13 says:

    Field studies on habituation primates without provisioning does not necessarily affect primate behavior (if there is truly a lack of provisioning), except sometimes simply the act of being observed can affect primate behavior. Even when primates seem to have adjusted to the presence of human observers, there is no guarantee that they are acting exactly as they would if the human wasn’t there. This could occur even if the primates grow too fond of the human; the goal is for them to be neutral. Therefore, it does not seem that there is any way to study primates without having the potential to affect their behavior. However, studying primates without provisioning does have the best chances of not affecting primate behavior.
    Field studies on primates habituated through provisioning can affect primate behavior because they have resources available to them that would not normally be there. This affects their lifestyle habits – the time they might normally spend searching for food is now put towards something else. This can even create new habits, as evidenced when primates being observed were provisioned sweet potatoes, which they learned to clean and then taught this new ability to their offspring. This can be a harmful study method, because it is important that the primates do not become overly reliant on these provisions. If for some reason the researchers could not return to the study area, perhaps due to lack of funding or political issues with the country, the primates need to be able to feed themselves. This method can be helpful, however, as a way to ease the difficulty of studying the primates.
    Captive studies in social groups with minimal interventions are guaranteed to have a much stronger affect on primate behavior, because the primates are removed from their natural habitat. Their behavior can be observed, but it is very much contextual; any studies show how they behave in captivity and do not offer as much insight into how they act in the wild. Captive studies with frequent interventions offer hardly any insight into primates’ natural behavior, as nearly every factor of their natural lifestyle and habitat is changed. This would undoubtedly be the most inefficient setting for primate studies.

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