Questions

Hello everyone!

I apologize for the hiatus, this last year of my Master’s, coupled with thesis work, has eaten up the majority of my time. You know all of those comic strips joking about no sleep and lots of coffee in grad school? Well, in my case, it’s TRUE. Ha!

So – on to the post.

I received an email from my Mom yesterday asking me to clarify a few things: (1) If the habituation work I did in Panama taught the animals to ‘trust’ humans, and (2) What exactly is an anthropologist versus a mammalogist? Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human right?

I felt like these questions were perfect for a blog post!

Question 1:

Yes, the animals I worked with were potentially taught to “trust” us humans. The real question is if this is a positive thing or not. At this specific facility we were trained to basically act as surrogate mothers for the primates rescued from the pet trade. Our goal was to rehabilitate them so they could return to the wild. I personally felt at this specific location that the methods were not in the best interest of the animals.

First, the animals were being habituated in both the forest, but also around the human environment (human language, human sounds, human living, etc). This is certainly not a “natural” environment for them.

Second, their habituation was dependent on the schedules of the facility. In times of low staff (or holidays), the habituation was put on hold. Therefore, the monkeys were not getting consistent, extended time in the forest. Again, at these times they were hanging around us humans at the site.

Third, some of the animals being held at the site were not endemic to that specific area. Therefore they had no chance of being habituated at that center. These animals should have been re-located to other facilities that could rehabilitate them properly. They were otherwise kept in cages (not for weeks, we’re talking months to a year).

All of that aside, there are positives and negatives to habituation itself. A positive as a researcher is that your study subjects do not run away upon seeing you! As they get habituated your presence is pretty much unnoticed and you can see them conducting themselves in a natural way. A negative is that they may be habituated to all people, making them vulnerable to threats by humans (e.g. bushmeat trade, pet trade, killing, etc). There could be a whole paper written about the trade-offs of habituation, but for simplicity sake, I named a few. You can read more here – a blog post by Dr. Michelle A. Rodrigues

Question 2:

Yes, in basic terms, anthropology is the study of what it is to be human. My focus (primatology) deals specifically with our closest living ancestors, monkeys and apes. Those that focus on evolution will sometimes observe living primates as a way to better understand fossil ancestors. This is really useful in terms of comparative analysis of locomotion. That’s how they were able to understand when exactly hominins became bipedal – there are many characteristics in the bones that give answers such as these.
In terms of studying living animals – let’s say, an elephant or a bat.
They are both living, so you could be a biologist. These are also both animals, so you could call yourself a zoologist. If you studied them in the field, you could be a wildlife biologist or a field ecologist.
These are also both mammals, therefore you could be a mammalogist.

You could also be a number of other things (embryologist, histologist, physiologist, geneticist, etc), and happen to use a bat or elephant in your research.

I personally am an anthropologist, but am focused on living primates. I would be in “physical” (sometimes called biological) anthropology. Then when you break it down to the study of primates (only), you get a Primatologist. This is a general answer because there are many areas within primatology that can be studied (e.g. socioecology, genetics) but this title distinguishes me from other physical anthropologists.

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So hopefully I have not thoroughly confused you with the terms!

I hope you all have had a great Thanksgiving and break!

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