Archive for the ‘Gorilla’ Category

I didn’t understand the value of hunting until I was 10 years old. I never had an opinion on it either way, but I could never understand why someone would just want to go out and kill an animal. It wasn’t until I was watching my dad, uncle, and cousins sit on their porch and spy a white-tailed deer in the backyard. Where we live, these deer are common. Not exactly habituated, but it’s common practice in more rural areas to provision them with salt licks and feed; if nothing else, to get a good look at them while you’re looking outside and basking in the northern Midwestern landscape.

On this particular night in late-autumn, celebrating my birthday with my cousin, they had spotted a deer eating from the salt-lick. It was a male and he had a gorgeous set of antlers–I can’t recall how many points, but enough to make my uncle and cousin jump from their seats and slowly creep towards where they had a small gun stowed. Carefully, my uncle opened the door and a loud pop! sound later, the deer ran off. He had missed, but afterwords, I looked at my dad and asked, “Why’d he shoot the deer? It wasn’t eating his garden or anything.”

“The deer population this year is high; if we don’t hunt, they’ll cause a lot of trouble for us and themselves.” He stated, matter-of-factually. I didn’t understand what it meant at the time, as I dropped the subject in lieu of birthday cake, but as I grew older–I understood. Without hunting, the populations would rise to unsustainable levels; more deer would mean less available food when resources were already scarce in the winter months and potentially lead to more dangerous accidents for drivers, as my aunt and grandmother both experienced first-hand years later. But, at the time, I understood more why it would be dangerous for us–which later gave me enough curiosity to understand why it would be bad for “them.”

Yesterday, Dr. John C. Mitani of the University of Michigan wrote an opinion article on the endangerment and potential extinction of both lesser and great apes. In it, he brings up a multitude of reasons for saving great apes from behavioral quirks, the primate heritage, and drawing connections between human primates and non-human primates. He even points out that politicians in Congress have put aside party differences in being able to provide conservation aide for apes. It was well-written and provided a bevy of reasons in which people should consider taking action to provide great apes with the aide they require in order to maintain populations and mitigating anthropogenic effects.

While there is nothing I would contest against what Dr. Mitani says, it’s what he doesn’t say that’s most interesting to me (which, could also have been removed due to editing or other reasons–I’ve had my share of time in journalism and I understand that not everything written goes to print). And this is something I’ve noticed before when people talk about conservation and taking action.

A critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and a caretaker at Bukit Lawang (Photo from: WikiMedia Commons)

For me, before I had been given an education in conservation, to understand the importance of doing so was best expressed in a practical, utilitarian format–how conservation tactics (like hunting) provided benefits to both humans (in terms of safety) and wildlife populations (in terms of sustainability).

I believe it’s possible to foment interest in conservation by using the anthropogenic hook and then using primates as further bait to take action. Harcourt et al. (1986) discovered that knowledge about wildlife species was a critical factor in attitudes about wildlife. Furthermore, negative perceptions of conservation are driven through a lack of education in how it can affect both wildlife and humans (Fiallo and Jacobsen 1995). In knowing that we are also great apes and share a heritage, why are we apt to leave ourselves out of this equation? Particularly when helping ourselves is one of the best things we can do for our evolutionary lineage. Kofi Annon, Secretary General of the United Nations once wrote:

Saving great apes is about saving people. By conserving the great apes, we can protect the livelihoods of many people who rely on forests for food, clean water, and much else. Indeed, the fate of the great apes has both practical and symbolic implications for the ability of human beings to move towards a more sustainable future.

In addition to the effects helping humans can have on non-human primates, in turn, non-human primates have an effect on us. Recently, it was discovered seeds ingested and passed through orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) guts in addition to being spat out can remain viable and germinate (Nielsen et al. 2011). Given that orangutans can consume around 118 species of fruiting plant and a large day range, orangutans can disperse seeds throughout a great range in the Sumatran rain forest, potentially providing more future fruit trees for both human and wildlife consumption (Nielsen et al. 2011).

When written like that, the purpose for conservation changes: not only does conserving apes help the environment, but it helps others–including us. Humans nor great apes exist in a vacuum; we frequently co-exist and affect each other. But maybe that’s where the discomfort and hesitance in using a more utilitarian approach lies.

I understand the utilitarian format is not without potential problems: in approaching ape conservation from a “What can it do for us?” perspective, we can run the risk of focusing only on anthropogenic needs rather than the needs of both.

I also realize thinking about just ourselves is part of the issue. I’m not sure if I believe the trope that humans are inherently selfish and the like; and definitely, there is a sense of greed that needs to be addressed. But if we need to be taking action immediately, why aren’t we willing to combine the two more frequently when we talk about conservation if it means it will change perceptions and get people to act?

Regardless of thoughts on human influence, we are a part of ecosystems all over the world, for better or worse. I welcome any readers to share their thoughts on this subject.


Fiallo, E.A. & Jacobsen, S.K. (1995). Local communities and protected areas: attitudes of rural residents towards conservation and Machalilla National Park, Ecuador. Env Conserv, 22: 241-249.

Harcourt, A.H., Pennington, H., & Weber, A.W. (1986). Public attitudes to wildlife and conservation in the Third World. Oryx, 20: 152-154.

Nielsen, N.H., Jacobsen, M.W., Graham, L.L.L.B., Morrogh-Bernard, H.C., D’Arcy, L.J., & Harrison, M.E. (2011). Successful germination of seeds following through orangutan guts. J Trop Ecol, 27: 433-435.


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This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org Over the past few weeks, I’ve made no secret about my growing love for medical anthropology. I’ve been dying to try and make a connection between primatology and medical anthropology, but for weeks, I haven’t been able to think of anything–that is, until now.

Peter Walsh, a primatologist affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has set up an initiative to establish a working vaccine for ebola to protect populations of African great apes from the viral disease. Ebola is responsible for killing one-third of the gorilla population and a sizable amount of chimpanzees in the last twenty years (Walsh et al. 2007). With that in mind, creating a working vaccine seems like a worthwhile solution: prevent these (critically, in some cases) endangered primates from losing group members by creating a vaccine that is responsible for killing up to a third of the population.

Or does it? I have some reservations, but I’ll get into that a little while.

Ebola: Nightmares are made of this

An electron micrograph of the ebola virus. This is the thing nightmares are made of. (Photo from: WikiMedia Commons)

As stated previously, ebola is a virus; a zoonotic virus that not only infects our primate kin, but ourselves as well (which I’ll get into a little later.) Ebola was originally recognized in 1976 in the western equatorial province of Sudan and what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (previously, Zaire.) Overall, there are five specific subtypes currently discovered that have been confirmed in Sudan, Gabon, Uganda, Republic of Congo, the Ivory Coast, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Currently, fruit bats (Epomops franqueti, Hypsignathus monstrosus, and Myonycteris torquata) are thought to be the natural host species, or reservoir of the Zaire virus (Pourrut et al. 2007). The Zaire virus strain is considered the most virulent and devastating to chimpanzee, gorilla, and human populations.

The ebola virus is believed to be transmitted from bat-to-bat by both vertical means (mother-to-offspring) and horizontal (infected bat biting non-infected bat or via mating); still, the link between transmission from bats to great apes and humans has yet to be found. However, there is a potential ecological hypothesis which posits during the end of the rainy season and beginning of dry season in Africa (November to February), fruit abundance is at its highest peak which is a primary food source for both great apes and fruit bats. It is possible that when bats consume and drop partially eaten fruits or pulp, the fluids from the bat would remain and contaminate great apes that consume the fruit (Gonzalez et al. 2007). Ebola can also be spread via aerosols in breathable droplets (Johnson et al. 1995). However, given that fruit bats and great apes do not typically share the same niche in the ecosystem, the contamination of partially eaten fruit is a more likely option.

Apes, Humans, and Vaccines: Naturally Selected for Each Other?

When I think of bushmeat, this is the image that always comes to mind. A gorilla's head used for cooking purposes. (Photo by: Karl Ammann)

While this seems likely for great apes, this does not explain how humans become initially infected with the ebola virus.  However, evidence is beginning to suggest that the zoonotic origin of the human infection comes from bushmeat hunting (Rouquet et al. 2005).  In a 1996 outbreak in Gabon, an epidemiological survey showed that index case-patients were infected by physical contact with an infected chimpanzee.

And now, the skepticism part: there has been a live attenuated vaccine developed by Integrated BioTherapeutics Inc. that has proven efficacy in establishing a challenge to the virus dose in rhesus macaques. Walsh intends to use this in experiments in chimpanzees with later use in gorillas, as well.

The practice of vaccinating wildlife is sometimes risky; live attenuated could always cause disease and/or revert to virulent pathogen because of selection pressures caused by vaccinations. (Think: MRSA and antibiotics in humans.) In a species such as gorilla, where it may be difficult to track populations down, this may prove to become a costly endeavor.

In terms of selection pressures, ebola viruses mutate at about the same rate (10-5 to 10-4 per site per year) as many other RNA viruses.  Although slower than influenza A and retroviruses, it does undergo a rapid evolution comparatively (Suzuki & Gojobori 1999). That said, while not as large of a risk, there is still a potential for mutation within the virus to occur.

Ebola and Bushmeat: Under Pressure

So what does this mean for humans? Well, for one: the vaccine is only produced for great apes so far. Yet, there are examples of other forms of bushmeat (i.e. duikers) that have been historically contaminated with the virus as well (Leroy et al. 2004). This means that while we may have protection in one form of bushmeat, many other forms can expose humans to ebola pathogens as well.

Second, it is true that ebola does kill a third of the gorilla population and also has a significant toll on chimpanzee populations—what about the other two-thirds? As Walsh et al. (2007) suggest, the other significant players in the role of gorilla deaths tend to be bushmeat hunting and habitat loss. Given the fact that bushmeat plays a role in both transmission of the virus and population declines for gorilla, perhaps it would be more effective to examine the bushmeat trade.

I’m not suggesting that we give up on this idea quite yet; it is absolutely worthwhile to pursue a vaccine which will protect chimpanzees and gorillas. However, I am saying that before we get too excited about eliminating one ultimate cause that we perhaps examine the “big picture” a little more—before there’s ultimately a bigger problem at hand.


Gonzalez JP, Pourrut X, & Leroy E (2007). Ebolavirus and other filoviruses. Current topics in microbiology and immunology, 315, 363-87 PMID: 17848072

Johnson, E., Jaax, N., White, J., & Jahrling, P. (1995). “Lethal experimental infections of rhesus monkeys by aerosolized Ebola virus.” International journal of experimental pathology 76(4): 227–36.

Leroy, E.M, Rouquet, P, Formenty, P., Souquière, S., Kilbourne, A., Froment, J.M., Bermejo, M., Smit, S., Karesh, W., Swanepoel, R., Zaki, S.R., & Rollin, P.E. (2004). Multiple Ebola virus transmission events and rapid decline of central African wildlife. Science (New York, N.Y.), 303 (5656), 387-90 PMID: 14726594

Pourrut X, Délicat A, Rollin PE, Ksiazek TG, Gonzalez JP, & Leroy EM (2007). Spatial and temporal patterns of Zaire ebolavirus antibody prevalence in the possible reservoir bat species. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 196 Suppl 2 PMID: 17940947

Rouquet, P., Froment, J.M., Bermejo, M., Kilbourn, A., Karesh, W., Reed, P., Kumulungui, B., Yaba, P., Délicat, A., Rollin, P.E., & Leroy, E.M. (2005). Wild animal mortality monitoring and human Ebola outbreaks, Gabon and Republic of Congo, 2001-2003. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 11 (2), 283-90 PMID: 15752448

Suzuki, Y.  Gojobori, T. (1999). A method for detecting positive selection at single amino acid sites. Mol. Biol. Evol., 16: 1315-1328.

Walsh, P.D., Tutin, C.E.G., Oates, J.F., Baillie, J.E.M., Maisels, F., Stokes, E.J., Gatti, S., Bergl, R.A., Sunderland‐Groves, J., & Dunn. A. (2007). Gorilla gorilla. In: 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, IUCN.<www.iucnredlist.org>

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“Marla tells me how in the wild you don’t see old animals because as soon as they age, animals die. If they get sick or slow down, something stronger kills them. Animals aren’t meant to get old. Marla lies down on her bed and undoes the tie on her bathrobe, and says our culture has made death something wrong. Old animals should be an unnatural exception. Freaks.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Death. Every philosopher has an opinion on it and very little do we know of it. I’m not talking about the situations where some young adult drinks themselves into alcohol poisoning and then gets revived—I’m talking about biting the dust, pushing up daisies, becoming a root inspector, kicking the bucket, taking a dirt nap, or whatever euphemism you fancy.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org We all know primates die; no one argues that much. But there is also significant evidence showing primates experience an awareness and emotional response to death as well.

Koko and All Ball (Photo by: Koko.org)

Most famously, there is the example of Koko the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) experiencing mourning symptoms after her pet kitten, All Ball, escaped from its cage and was hit by a car.  Francine Patterson, Koko’s caretaker, reported that she believed Koko had made sounds similar to human sobbing and communicating her distress through American Sign Language with signs such as “Bad-sad-bad” and “Frown-cry-frown-sad” (Patterson 1987).

In a recently published article for the American Journal of Primatology, James Anderson (2010) suggests context has a significant part in how primates respond to death as well. Evidence from deaths of individual group members suggest different reactions; mortality events from causes such as predation versus illness and even characteristics like age, sex, and social status may seem to play a role in these responses.

A female chimpanzee with mummified infant on her back. (Photo by: D. Biro)

Compared to the situation with Koko, a captive gorilla; wild primates have also been recently recorded to display some mourning symptoms as well. For mothers with young infants that die, reactions can tend to have longer mourning symptoms. For example, two chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus) mothers were found to transport their deceased infants for a prolonged period of time—68 and 19 days after death in the respective cases (Biro et al. 2010). In these situations, although the infants mummified, the mothers still treated them as living entities—swatting insects away and grooming them.

Morbidity events (which can become later mortality events) may draw emotional reactions from group members as well. Unlike chimpanzees, little evidence of compassion for group members is displayed in wild gelada baboons (Theropithecus gelada) (Fashing et al. 2010). In a situation where a mother (Tesla) was succumbing to a parasitic infection, conspecifics only peered back once at her and her infant (Tussock, who died a day later) before leaving the plateau to search for food. Days before her death, female group members allomothered Tussock as Tesla slowly trailed behind the group. It is unclear why these same females did not respond to the infant upon returning to the plateau; though, perhaps something to do with the costs of infants to females and can be burdensome to take on caring for an infant which is not biologically hers.

While it remains to be seen how much and in what specific circumstances the context and characteristics affect reaction, I know I’ll be looking forward to further research on this subject and the development of thanatological primatology, even if the deceased primates are “old, unnatural freaks.”


Anderson, J.R. (2010). A primatological perspective on death. American Journal of Primatology PMID: 21197638

Biro, D., Humle, T., Koops, K., Sousa, C., Hayashi, M., & Matsuzawa, T. (2010). Chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea carry the mummified remains of their dead infants. Current Biology, 20(8), R351-R352. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.031

Fashing, P.J., Nguyen, N., Barry, T.S., Goodale, C.B., Burke, R.J., Jones, S.C., Kerby, J.T., Lee, L.M., Nurmi, N.O., Venkataraman V.V. (2010). Death among geladas (Theropithecus gelada): a broader perspective on mummified infants and primate thanatology. American Journal of Primatology PMID: 21136522

Patterson, F. (1987). Koko’s Kitten. Scholastic, Inc. ISBN 0-590-44425-5

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ResearchBlogging.org In the field of primatology, the ethics and implications of non-human primate field research have been receiving greater consideration in the past fifteen years.  While non-human primate field research is a valuable tool because it increases our knowledge about our ancestors, it also creates an ethical conundrum from a biocentric perspective because of effects from the habituation process which is often used to obtain data.  Habituation can prove hazardous to the welfare of non-human primate subjects as it can completely remove the fearful instinct to flee from human presence.  I will begin by describing the habituation process and then explaining the effects from habituation which are of ethical concern, and then consider the various objections to the categorization of habituation as an unethical practice in field research.  Finally, I will argue that I will utilizing full habituation in non-human primate field research is unethical as it compromises the welfare of its subjects and the legitimacy of the data collected.

Habituation is a critical method within field research which allows researchers to observe free-ranging non-human primates within a close range.  For the purpose of this paper, habituation is defined by Rankin et al. (2009) as, “a behavioral response that results from repeated stimulation … and repeated applications of the stimulus results in decreased response.”  In this case, stimulation refers to a human researcher repeatedly approaching a subject until the subject is desensitized to human presence.  The essential goal of habituation is to have the subject recognize the researcher as a neutral entity within its own environment.  This method is used for field research in order to track subjects, collect data while freely moving about, and conduct studies on individual subjects.  Habituation can involve a group of researchers tracking down a group of non-human primate subjects and subjecting them to human exposure daily over an extended period of time ranging from under a month to as long as five years.

Habituation in a natural setting; people in close contact with gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). (Photo by: Ian Redmond, gorilla.wildlifedirect.org)

Another technique of habituation involves food provisioning, which can also serve to reduce fear of humans and further allow researchers to have closer contact to their non-human primate subjects.  Williamson and Feistner (2003) establish food provisioning as, “use of artificial feeding as a positive incentive to tolerate human presence.”  Food provisioning entails providing non-human primate subjects a sampling of preferred foods (such as fruits) which allows the researchers to observe the subjects as they feed and reduces the non-human primate’s fear of humans.  Over time, as the food provisioning technique is used, the subjects become more comfortable with the researchers and offer better visual observations for researchers.  Food provisioning serves as a convenient method for researchers to familiarize non-human primate subjects with human presence from researchers in order to collect data from an observational setting.

Because many non-human primates are fearful of humans, human presence is significant in a field research setting concerning successful completion of research.  In gorillas (Gorilla gorilla berengei), habituation is particularly difficult as gorillas have extremely low population densities in environments which tend to be visually challenging due to climatic conditions (Doran-Sheehy 2007).  Because of the conditions of the climate, it was imperative to habituate the subjects in order to facilitate better tracking for data collection.  In 2001, Doran-Sheehy (2007) and her colleagues set out to habituate a group of gorillas at the Mondika Research Center in the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo.  The researchers habituated a group of gorillas by using a method which involved making no specific value-oriented action except for soft vocalizations to aid awareness of human presence.  Over a period of 31 months, a majority of the tracked gorilla population was considered habituated for research purposes as the gorillas would not retreat from human presence.

For the example of the gorillas at the Mondika Research Center, and in many other cases in primatological field research, habituation was a necessary tool in order to conduct the study and collect data.  In field research, when a non-human primate subject has not been exposed to human presence for long enough, the most common response by subjects is to flee and escape before researchers are able to collect data.  Additionally, even if the group remains long enough for a researcher to collect data, the observing researcher might not be close enough to detect specific behavioral reactions critical to some studies that may last for only a few seconds such as lip smacking.

A western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). (Photo by: Rick Murphy - Primate Info Net)

While habituation can facilitate the collection of data from an observational perspective, it can also serve as an ethically problematic situation in field research.  Habituation requires two specific traits in order for it to be successful.  The first is that the habituation must have humans associated as a neutral element to the non-human primate subject’s environment.  The second is that the non-human primate subject’s natural behavioral response of fleeing is removed or reduced in order to be able to get closer to the desired subject for, in field research purposes, data collection and observation.  These two requirements alone make habituation an ethically questionable method in a biocentric perspective for research and for non-human primate welfare purposes.

Biocentrism is a perspective often utilized for environmental ethics, but can also be appropriate for non-human primate field research as subjects are a part of the environment.  From a biocentric perspective, habituation can be perceived as an ethically problematic aspect.  Biocentrism requires a “respect for the welfare and inherent worth of all organisms” (Derr and McNamara 2003).  Thus, for field research using habituation methods to be considered ethical from a biocentric view, an action must consider the welfare of the non-human primate subject and respect its inherent worth within its environment.  Although it might seem like researchers are compliant of this because they may be attempting to perform the research to cultivate respect for the non-human primate subjects, it does not follow necessarily that the field research undertaken to do so is necessarily biocentric.  In order to illustrate how this might be the case, I point to examples of effects from habituation as to how habituation may not be an ethical method in terms of the requirements of biocentrism.

The purpose of habituation is to eventually have non-human primate subjects such as gorillas to regard human presence with a neutral association. However, by removing this fearful stimulation of humans and replacing it with a neutral association, gorillas become more susceptible to predation pressures from humans.  In some cases, after some gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda were habituated for field research, incidences of crop raiding behaviors from gorillas increased (Lee and Priston 2005).   In these cases, gorillas were often eating crops that native farmers cultivated for subsistence purposes.  Retaliation towards gorillas that eat the crops often results in death; an especially costly price for gorillas, which have been declining in population over the last 20 years (Harcourt and Stewart 1980; Robbins and Williamson 2008).

Rangers carrying the body of a deceased gorilla in Virunga National Park in 2007. (Photograph: WildLifeDirect via Guardian)

Because the crop-raiding behaviors which developed from habituation of less fearful gorillas were unintended from the researcher’s perspective, this particular example of non-human primate subjects demonstrates the significance of attempting to predict the side effects from research.  Even though the researchers studying gorillas in their natural settings respected the intrinsic value of the primate subject, the effects from the researchers established an abnormal sense of security within the gorillas from the habituation method and made them susceptible to retaliation from the human population, as they had never received any negative reaction from the human researchers.  By removing the natural fear stimuli from the gorillas, they felt less fear when going near crops established by the humans who were quick to retaliate against the non-human primates they perceived as pests.  As a result, the welfare of the gorillas was significantly reduced for individual gorillas within groups.  Therefore, the effects from habituation in terms of removing fear of humans are in violation of the welfare principle of biocentrism, suggesting that it is an ethically questionable method from this perspective.

Another problematic surrounding the ethics of habituation in field research is how habituation can play a role in disease transmission between non-human primate subjects and human researchers.  By removing the fearful stimulus and changing the contact between humans and gorillas, there is a risk of increasing susceptibility to disease.  Gorillas are particularly susceptible to respiratory diseases from humans as there was no prior exposure.  In 1988 at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda, six female gorillas died and 81% of apes within the group showed clinical signs of a respiratory disease after a research group came to study the habituated apes (Woodford et al. 2002).  What ultimately caused these apes to become ill was exposure to infected individuals within the research group.  Although the researchers, again, may have had interests of the gorillas’ inherent worth at heart, they ultimately failed to respect the gorillas’ welfare by continuing research while infected.  Because six of the gorillas died and a majority showed clinical signs of the disease, the lack of consideration in terms of physical health is a clear violation of respect of welfare.

A gorilla habituated for ecotourism purposes. (Photo by: Natl. Geographic Adventure)

While both risks of predation and disease risks increase because of habituation, there are still reasons as to why habituation is ethically permissible to human researchers.  Although habituation was not used in the example of the gorillas in the Mondika Research Center, it has been used in other field research sites such as Jane Goodall’s site in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania up until 2000.  Like many other aspects of science, food provisioning is not without consequence, there are ways of mitigating the damage from the consequences thereof.   One of the methods of reducing the negative impacts of habituation is to remove food provisioning from field research sites completely.  By removing the food, non-human primate subjects are unable to make an association between humans and food resources; thus, making them less likely to go near crops in human territory. Another benefit of removing food provisioning is that the risk for disease transmission risk is reduced when neither humans nor other non-human primate subjects are handling the same food sources.  However, while this does give greater consideration to the welfare of the non-human primate subjects, there are also other matters related to habituation which many argue on the behalf thereof.

A male silverback gorilla at the Milwaukee Zoo, "habituated" by human presence. (Photo by: A.V.S.)

One of the other significant arguments which has been posed for the potential resolution of the ethical problems of habituation is to not fully habituate the non-human primate subjects.  Habituation is not a strict method with only one degree; there are varying levels of habituation. Non-human primate subjects can be semi-habituated to the degree in which subjects ignore human presence around half of the time.  In these cases, human researchers can document observances while at the same time preserving a partial fear of humans to help reduce crop-raiding behaviors.  Thus, researchers can maintain their research studies (albeit at half of the time of a fully habituated group), but also respect the welfare and intrinsic rights of the non-human primates by only semi-habituating groups.

In the case of the gorillas, I would not perceive the practice of full habituation as ethically permissible.  First, while the habituation methods used did not involve food provisioning, they were tracking and most likely did contribute to stress levels for the gorillas over a 31-month period—thus, reducing the welfare of the gorilla troop.  Secondly, by fully habituating these groups, the researchers were not respecting the intrinsic welfare or respect of the gorillas by altering their natural behavioral tendencies to fit their needs and therefore putting the gorillas at risk of predation and disease susceptibility.  These effects can be removed over time if researchers are prohibited from taking part in research on that particular group, but this is unlikely to happen, as there are still data deficiencies in information about gorillas and other non-human primates.  A better method might be to prohibit future habituation methods in other non-habituated gorilla groups in the same geographic range.  As it stands, I do not find the methods undertaken by the Doran-Sheehy group of researchers to be considered ethically permissible.

From a biocentric perspective, full habituation is an ethically questionable method which I find to be ethically non-permissible.  Although it can be used responsibly and for well-intentioned purposes of research studies, the side effects on the non-human primate subjects thereof remain long after the researchers have left the field site, often with significant consequences in the case of the gorillas.  I believe that by prohibiting food provisioning and only semi-habituating non-human primate subjects, field research would be more biocentrically ethical in terms of the action of habituation and its after effects.  Furthermore, if researchers only use sites where non-human primate subjects have been habituated, it would prevent consequences at a greater level as opposed to a specific population.  Even if habituation is a necessary tool, it is one that can be used in moderation and by performing it responsibly and ethically.

Another method of helping gorillas who have been habituated is to donate to veterinarians willing to donate their time to the cause.  Over at 1 of 750,Adam Moreze has a great offer for those wanting to help. For every $10+ you donate to the care of mountain gorillas, you “get one” in return. One being a limited edition print, of course! All proceeds (minus shipping) go toward the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. It’d be a great and charitable gift for the great apes in your life!


Derr, P.G. & E.M. McNamara (2003). Case studies in environmental ethics.  Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield Printing.

Doran-Sheehy, D., Derby, A., Greer, D., & Mongo, P. (2007). Habituation of western gorillas: the process and factors that influence it American Journal of Primatology, 69 (12), 1354-1369. DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20442

Harcourt, A.H. & K.J. Stewart (1980).  Gorilla-Eaters of Gabon.  Oryx, 15(3): 248-252.

Lee, P. C. &  N. E. C. Priston (2005).  Human Attitudes to Primates: Perceptions of Pests, Conflict, and Consequences for Conservation. In Commensalism and Conflict: The Primate-Human Interface. J. D. Paterson. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Hignell Printing.

Rankin, C.H., Abrams, T., Barry, R.J., Bhatnager, S., Clayton, D., Colombo, J., Coppola, G., Geyer, M.A., Glanzman, D.L., Marsland, S., McSweeney, F., Wilson, D.A., Wu, C.F. & R.F. Thompson (2009).  Habituation Revisited: An Updated and Revised Description of the Behavioral Characteristics of Habituation.  Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 92(2): 135-138.

Robbins, M. & Williamson, L. 2008. Gorilla beringei. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. <www.iucnredlist.org>.

Williamson, E.A. & A.T.C. Fleistner (2003).  Habituating primates: processes, techniques, variables and ethics.  In Field and Laboratory Methods in Primatology: A Practical Guide.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodford, M.H., Butynski, T.M. & W.B. Karesh (2002).  Habituating the great apes: the disease risks.  Oryx, 36(2): 153-160.

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Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) in Monkey Mountain, Inuyama, Japan. Taken by a personal friend on her trip a few years back. (Photo by: R. Sim)

Hey hey hey, y’all. Monkey Day 2010 is here at last. While I intend to make something like this an annual tradition provided I’m still running this blog, it will hopefully also be a special edition for Four Stone Hearth as well. The Fourth Stone Hearth is a blog carnival that specializes in anthropology in the widest (American) sense of that word. Here, anthropology is the study of humankind, throughout all times and places, focusing primarily on four lines of research: archaeology, sociocultural anthropology, bio-physical anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. I’ll do my best to make it as inclusive as possible with what I’m given to accommodate for all four branches so everyone can get something out of today’s most wonderful time of the year. That said, there’s monkey business to get done, so let’s get to it:

First up, we’ve got Krystal at Anthropology in Practice with a post on “The Evolutionary Roots of Talking with Our Hands.” The article does a really great job of examining gestures within language acquisition and examines it through an evolutionary perspective of our primate ancestors such as siamangs, captive gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. She also posted a really great video of the famous bonobo at the Great Ape Trust, Kanzi, working with a lexigram as an example of communicating with gestures.

Speaking of field work, this was taken by me during my favorite field work moment at La Suerte Biological Field Station in Costa Rica when this capuchin (Cebus capucinus) spat out the seed in her mouth on top of my head. Love. (Photo by: A.V.S.)

New blogger to the scene, Atelid, over at The Primate Chronicles has some pretty great articles for people to look at. One specifically written for today’s special issue, “I can see you, but I can hear you better: a little known fact about Tarsiers,” one of the (in my opinion) most underrated and unappreciated prosimians. She also wrote about some of her favorite field work moments and gave a great example for what it’s like to have some of the best positive experiences during field work in her “My Top 5 Fieldwork Moments.”

As always, Raymond Ho, FCD, or The Prancing Papio, has some insight into a very timely discovery to science with Another addition to the Fork-marked lemur species? Raymond does a great job of explaining the details about this new information and what to make of it in the context of the information we have currently.

Over at her blog, Barbara J. King writes about The Cognitive Watershed and Nut-Cracking Monkey Pushback wherein she explains one of the finer (and, in my personal opinion, coolest) aspects of primatology, nut-cracking, and uses bearded capuchin monkeys (Cebus libidosus) to exemplify these foraging techniques. Pretty timely as the holidays approach, eh?

DNApes has also got a fantastic article that’s been hitting the news recently about Monitoring the Health of Endangered, Wild Chimpanzees. I’m particularly interested in disease ecology in primates, so this article was a special treat for me given that it looks at the potential for retroviral diseases in chimpanzees and the risks posed to hunters as a result.

Speaking of an "elak apa," this is another picture I took while studying in Costa Rica. This is a (obviously) male mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata). (Photo by: A.V.S.)

Have you ever been curious about how to say “Bad Monkey” in a language other than your own? Well, here’s your chance! A clever great ape managed to figure out how to say it in ways from Braille, British Sign Language, Semaphore, and everything else you could imagine.

Finally, I think Kevin at the Creativity Well sums up Monkey Day best of all with his post, “Unleashing my inner monkey“–I’ll let you read that one on your own because I think it does a great job of marrying both personal life aspects (even for those who aren’t primatologists) with one’s primate self.

The next round of Four Stone Hearth (#109) will be hosted at Testimony of the Spade. If you’re interested, send Magnus or the always-lovely, Afarensis your articles or nominate some of your fellow Anthropoblogging peers. This week was a special issue dedicated towards primates, but next week will be returning to the usual format.

As far as Serious Monkey Business goes–in the near future, expect some articles on the ethics of habituation from a biocentric perspective, macaques, and also looking at primatology from a Mauss-ian perspective. Until then, Happy Monkey Day, everybody!

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Admittedly, I’ve been a little too pre-occupied with other things than blogging right now. I found out a few weeks ago I’d be losing my position at the primate library I work at because we lost a major grant that sustained our department, so I’ve been busy with trying to find a job and getting ready to move into a new apartment. That said, I don’t have anything extremely insightful for anyone and probably won’t until classes get started up again in September. Until then, enjoy!

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Today I began my week-long research project at the Como Zoo on the orangutans they have there. And now, more than ever do I seethe that I couldn’t complete my research project in the field.

The Como Zoo is impressive for a free zoo; it has Sumatran Orangutans (an adult male and female, adolescent(?) female, and a juvenile male), two Western Lowland Gorillas, Geoffroy’s Spider Monkeys, and a few other primates (Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth not included though it’s located in the primate exhibit with the White-faced Saki Monkey and Geoffroy’s Tamarins). But it’s a free zoo at the mercy of tax dollars and donations–and it shows in the exhibits and unfortunately, the animals.

While I was there, I noticed the juvenile male orangutan performing stereotypic behavior (saluting). After alerting the zookeeper about the behavior (who had no idea what stereotypic behavior was), I began to pay attention to the environment of the surroundings even closer. I wasn’t paying attention the first time the saluting behavior happened, but the second was very shortly after a child started pounding on the glass and screaming.

And then, it got me wondering. How many of these stereotypic behaviors are really brought on by the crowds that come to be entertained and (maybe) learn about the animals? Certainly, the manner in which the primates were reared has an effect (Mallapur & Choudhury 2003), but surely, that can’t be all as in this particular case, the juvenile was born at the Como Zoo and is still reared by his birth mother. Housing may also play a role (Mallapur 2005), but I think it’s also important to consider the role of the crowds as well.

I think at this point, one of the best things the Como Zoo can do for its primates is to make a sign for incoming guests and let them know of things that upset the primates–I may be too optimistic, but I want to believe most people don’t want to inconvenience the animals and would be considerate if they had the knowledge that some of their actions may negatively stress out the animals.

I know I have a lot of friends who have no idea what I mean, so here’s what I’d probably put on that sign:

          Please don’t do the following behaviors (it makes the primates upset!):

            – Smile or make eye contact. They see this as a threat!

            – Tap the glass or scream; it startles the primates!

            – Make noises to rile the monkeys–this stresses them out.

I don’t expect parents or kids to know better–hell, without my training at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center or in my classes, I wouldn’t have known these behaviors were bad. But here’s hoping that someone reads this and goes to the zoo next time with a little better etiquette for both the animals and the zoo-goers.

Mallapur, A. & Choudhury, B.C.  (2003).  Behavioral abnormalities in captive non-human primatesJournal of Applied Welfare Science, 6(4), 275-284.

Mallapur, A.  (2005).  Managing primates in zoos:  Lessons from animal behaviourCurrent Science, 89(7), 1214-1219.

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