Not sure if I should include “parrot wrangling” in my activity categories.

Originally posted 2012, scroll to the bottom for the final update!

So now that my topic has officially been approved, I thought I would share my primate behavior research with the interwebs!

I am going to be working with Saimiri sciureus, or squirrel monkeys. They are small, diurnal anthropoid primates found in the rainforests of Central and South America!

They are also adorable- er I mean their facial features are similar to that of a juvenile human and therefore cause me to feel affection. Yeah. Science.

Anyway, I plan on observing the population of squirrel monkeys at the Norfolk Zoo for ten hours. I will be using instantaneous/scan sampling (where I record the behavior of the group at regular time intervals) to collect data on how these little guys spend their time. Or, put another way, to create an Activity Budget.

What’s that, reader? Why would I choose to study how captive squirrel monkeys spend their time? What are the larger implications of such a study? Why, I am so glad you asked. One of the major problems zoos face (and are sometimes criticized for) is the fact that captive animals behave differently than their wild counterparts. This often includes captive animals engaging in “abnormal” behaviors (see Birkett and Newton-Fisher’s article “How Abnormal is the Behavior of Captive, Zoo-Living Chimpanzees” for an example).  Therefore, a major goal for any zoo-keeper or trainer worth their salt is to try and help the animals they care for live in a way more like how they would in the wild. A good way to compare the behavior of zoo animals with that of wild populations is to look at their activity budgets. This also provides a good measuring stick when testing to see if an enrichment technique is working (see Fekete, Norcross, and Newman’s article “Artificial turf foraging boards as environmental enrichment for pair-housed female squirrel monkeys”).

Now, of course my research is just a simple 12 page paper assignment. I will not have the time or wherewithal to compare my findings with an analogous wild population or institute any new enrichment techniques. Instead I intend to compare the budgets of male and female group members, and test to see if there is a statistical difference in the amount of time they spend on a given activity. This will not change the world or the situation of any bored animals in zoos, but this will provide me with some much-needed experience in observing and recording the behavior of animals in real-time. Skills that I will hopefully use one day to understand, protect, and better the lives of animals like the squirrel monkey.

That’s the plan anyway.

Update 10/24/19

Wow. A lot has happened in 7 years! Since doing this project, I’ve gone onto a ton of interesting work–but I still love the simplicity of the study design. Anywho, what did I actually find? Glad you asked.

Through some simple statistics (chi-square analysis, for my fellow nerds), I found important differences in how the juvenile and adult monkeys spent their time in the zoo. Basically, kids played more and adults spent a bit more time resting (big mood, tbh) and uh–to put it delicately, putting on some Marvin Gaye and spending adult time together. These conclusions make sense, and showed that how the way individuals of the same species spend their time can vary between age classes.

I WANT YOU... to help protect local wildlife!
I WANT YOU… to help protect local wildlife!

Originally shared in January 2013

My current focus on conservation has made me realize how easy it is to despair when looking into the serious threats against biodiversity. With logging, agricultural expansion, and poaching threatening major diversity hotspots, and ever-growing list of endangered species, it’s easy to feel like there is nothing a single individual can do to help protect wildlife and the environment. And while it is true that large scale environmental movements require large amounts of funding and clout, looking to a more local and individual level, there are a few things anyone can do to protect wildlife. The following tips go for everyone, whether you live on an isolated farm, or the middle of a city. Wildlife are everywhere, whether we often see them or not. What follows is a list of easy steps anyone can take to become part of the solution instead of the problem for wildlife that live in close association with human populations.

  1. Keep pets indoors when unaccompanied! I know from my own experiences that many people let their dogs and cats run wild throughout the day. It may feel good to know that your domestic animal is getting a ton of fresh air, which is obviously very important to their health and well-being, but even a single invasive pet can have devastating consequences for local wildlife. They are surprisingly effective predators, despite how “sweet” and “cute” they may seem to us. Some people think that placing a bell on a cat’s collar will eliminate this problem but unfortunately it seems that this is not the case as by the time the bell rings your pet is already close enough to pounce.  So, when possible, keep your pet indoors or at least confined to some kind of enclosure. Luckily for me, Stella is perfectly content to stay inside
  2. If you have a yard, create a “backyard habitat”. Local ecosystems where wildlife once thrived may start to become inhospitable due to human encroachment. Water tables can lower, invasive plants may compete with local food sources, and forest clearing may leave many species without any cover. In order to mitigate these problems to a least a small degree, you can artificially recreate a more suitable environment by bringing in new sources of water, food, cover, and places to raise young. Although this may not make a difference in the grand scheme of species conservation, you are helping individual birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians to have more of a chance to survive, which is certainly a victory in itself.  And by displaying a “certified backyard habitat” sign you may even encourage neighbors to participate as well! Find more information on how to create and certify a backyard habitat here
  3. Advocate against lead bullets! We all know lead can be very harmful, yet many hunters still use lead bullets. When a hunter fires a lead bullet, pieces of it will shatter throughout the prey. And when parts of hunted game (sorry for the terrible image!) are cleaned out and left in the wild,  a very serious problem for animals like eagles, hawks, and other raptors is created. These animals and other scavengers will eat the contaminated remains, leading to lead poisoning. This can cause serious neurological deterioration, limit reproductive success, and in high enough quantities, death. A simple solution to this problem is to use alternative kinds of bullets, but many people resist this change. Without action however, raptors and other birds, including our national symbol the bald eagle, will remain imperiled. So if you hunt yourself, or know anyone who does, do us all a favor and use non-toxic ammunition. And since lead-free bullets have been shown to be just as effective there really is no viable reason to resist the switch. Help to end poisoning of America’s most beloved symbol, and other equally important species!

These simple steps may not save entire species from extinction, but they can make a huge difference for those living in your neighborhood! So do what you can, when you can, and hopefully others will be inspired to pitch in as well!

Have any other ideas about how to help local wildlife? I would love to hear them!L


Because accountability is a good thing.

Writing Goals:

  • Finish re-write of Twice Blessed (The Fenearen Chronicles Book 2)
  • Daphne short story contest
  • Flash fiction contest
  • Edit Twice Blessed
  • Send Twice Blessed to Editor

Research Goals:

  • Finalize project proposal for Mongolian study
  • Prep for Mongolian expedition
  • Finish NSF proposal for dissertation research

Academic Goals:

  • GIS class
  • Qualitative Research Methods Class
  • Teaching intro Environmental Science

Personal Goals:

  • Continue yoga practice
  • Walk or jog daily

Credit: Virginia Tech/ John McCormick
Credit: Virginia Tech/ John McCormick

I know. That title is a pretty bad joke. One could even say it was a poultry attempt. Okay, I’m done now, promise. Now, to science!

In a new study published in the online version of the journal Biology Letters, a group of chickens show us just how quickly evolution can take place. A team of scientists led by Oxford’s Dr. Greger Larson looked at fifty years worth of data in order to trace how mitochondrial DNA was passed from mother to daughter. Now fifty years may seem like a long time to us mere mortal humans, but on the evolutionary time scale it’s a drop in the Darwinian bucket. That’s why what the scientists found was so surprising. In just fifty years, this dynasty of chickens had not one but two mutations in their mitochondrial genomes. This means that the rate of evolution for these chickens was fifteen times faster than thought possible, since according to estimates based on fossil studies, scientists had previously thought the rate of change for mitochondrial genomes to be at most a measly two percent per million years.

But the surprising findings don’t stop there. As anyone who has ever marathonned CSI may be able to tell you, mitochondrial DNA is supposed to be passed strictly as is from mother to offspring. But our fine feathered friends were having none of that, as the scientists discovered when they noted an instance of mitochondrial DNA being passed from father to child. Combined with the much higher than expected rate of mutation, this “paternal leakage” shows just how busy evolution can be, even over relatively short time periods. As the study’s lead author Dr. Michelle Alexander said, “Both of these findings demonstrate the speed and dynamism of evolution when observed over short time periods.”

So what does this mean for our understanding of evolution? For one, it underlines the fact that evolution is happening all around us, all the time. And if we don’t see it, it may just be because we aren’t looking closely enough.


Credits: Eurekalert, Biology Letters