What Do Primates Do?

Primate volunteers help us collect data on orangutan behavior.

Primate volunteers help us collect data on orangutan behavior.

Much of my time has been spent focusing on koala research both at the San Diego Zoo and overseas in koala habitats in Australia. However, that is not all that I do or am interested in! A few years ago, I decided to go back to focusing some of my efforts on primate research. Most of my previous work with koalas focused upon mate choice and factors that influence it, but with primates, the research opportunities at the Zoo are more focused on the social interactions within groups of different primates. Specifically, this entails undertaking a lot of behavioral observation work, otherwise known as standing in front of exhibits and recording behaviors for many hours.

As I’m involved with several different research projects, time for me is not always plentiful, as I am sure you can all relate to. In order for me to accomplish this expansion of my work, I either needed to clone myself or enlist the help of a dedicated group of individuals. For me, the choice was easy: I decided on the latter! Who are these people, you ask? They are our very own primate observation volunteers. They all come with unique backgrounds and personalities but share a singular goal: to watch primates and record their behaviors to help expand the behavioral knowledge we need to maximize welfare and bolster breeding success.

This incredible team of volunteers has helped to reach this goal by tirelessly collecting data, sometimes in the rain, and, in return, they have seen some wonderful animal behavior. Any one of them can tell you who likes to hang out with whom in the bonobo world, which, they can tell you, changes daily and sometimes even hourly! They also can tell you about the orangutan soap opera that continues day to day with Satu’s ladies vying with each other for his attention. They can even tell you which capuchins will gladly come to the front of the exhibit for a chance that someone walking by will give them attention!

These volunteers get to do what is one of my favorite things about my work: really focus upon what animals do on a daily basis. And for me, it’s particularly exciting, as I get to expand my ability to collect more data on more species of primates. Without their help, these studies would not be possible, and for that I am grateful to all of them.

If you’re at the Zoo or the Safari Park and you see someone in front of any of these exhibits with a clipboard and stopwatch, they might be one of these primate volunteers.

Jennifer Tobey is a behavioral biologist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Koala Headlines.

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