Understanding and predicting the effects climate change, habitat loss, and other human disturbances on natural populations is one of the grand challenges for today’s natural scientists.
My research is in the broad area of behavioral responses to changing environments, both ecological and social. We still do not fully understand the limits of behavioral flexibility or whether adaptive responses will be sufficient to keep pace with rapidly changing environmental conditions. These gaps in our understanding motivate the goals of my research: to shed light on the limits, consequences, and evolutionary roots of flexible responses to environments that change in time or space.
I study natural primate populations, including white-faced capuchins in Costa Rica’s Área de Conservación Guanacaste and savannah baboons in the Amboseli ecosystem of East Africa. I also do comparative research with the Primate Life History Database.
PhD in Biological Anthropology, 2014
University of Calgary
MA in Biological Anthropology, 2008
University of Calgary
BSc in Biology, 2002
California Institute of Technology
People who are more socially integrated or have higher socio-economic status live longer. Recent studies in non-human primates show striking convergences with this human pattern: female primates with more social partners, stronger social bonds or higher dominance rank all lead longer lives. However, it remains unclear whether social environments also predict survival in male non-human primates, as it does in men. This gap persists because, in most primates, males disperse among social groups, resulting in many males who disappear with unknown fate and have unknown dates of birth. We present a Bayesian model to estimate the effects of time-varying social covariates on age-specific adult mortality in both sexes of wild baboons. We compare how the survival trajectories of both sexes are linked to social bonds and social status over the life. We find that, parallel to females, male baboons who are more strongly bonded to females have longer lifespans. However, males with higher dominance rank for their age appear to have shorter lifespans. This finding brings new understanding to the adaptive significance of heterosexual social bonds for male baboons: in addition to protecting the male’s offspring from infanticide, these bonds may have direct benefits to males themselves. This article is part of the theme issue `Evolution of the primate ageing process.’
The social environment, both in early life and adulthood, is one of the strongest predictors of morbidity and mortality risk in humans. Evidence from long-term studies of other social mammals indicates that this relationship is similar across many species. In addition, experimental studies show that social interactions can causally alter animal physiology, disease risk, and life span itself. These findings highlight the importance of the social environment to health and mortality as well as Darwinian fitness—outcomes of interest to social scientists and biologists alike. They thus emphasize the utility of cross-species analysis for understanding the predictors of, and mechanisms underlying, social gradients in health.
Extreme climate events can have important consequences for the dynamics of natural populations, and severe droughts are predicted to become more common and intense due to climate change. We analysed infant mortality in relation to drought in two primate species (white-faced capuchins, Cebus capucinus imitator, and Geoffroy’s spider monkeys, Ateles geoffroyi) in a tropical dry forest in northwestern Costa Rica. Our survival analyses combine several rare and valuable long-term datasets, including long-term primate life-history, landscape-scale fruit abundance, food-tree mortality, and climate conditions. Infant capuchins showed a threshold mortality response to drought, with exceptionally high mortality during a period of intense drought, but not during periods of moderate water shortage. By contrast, spider monkey females stopped reproducing during severe drought, and the mortality of infant spider monkeys peaked later during a period of low fruit abundance and high food-tree mortality linked to the drought. These divergent patterns implicate differing physiology, behaviour or associated factors in shaping species-specific drought responses. Our findings link predictions about the Earth’s changing climate to environmental influences on primate mortality risk and thereby improve our understanding of how the increasing severity and frequency of droughts will affect the dynamics and conservation of wild primates.