Students offered rare glimpse into world of owl monkeys

The DuMond Conservancy for Primates and Tropical Forests in South Dade is not your typical classroom. Monkey habitats blend in seamlessly among the 12 hectares (30 acres) of protected native woodland that comprise the conservancy and adjacent Monkey Jungle grounds. It’s a setting unlike any other for FIU researchers and students to conduct hands-on research about owl monkeys, the world’s only nocturnal monkey.

In this learning environment, millipede guts and monkey urine serve as the instructional materials.

‘Owl monkeys are so poorly understood’

FIU students Jay Jefferson and Elizabeth Tapanes are two of the 10-12 FIU students conducting research at the conservancy. They’re working under the guidance of Sian Evans, an FIU primate biology instructor who is managing director of the DuMond Conservancy.

The students are helping to shed light on the behaviors of owl monkeys, about which little is known.

Jefferson, who began working with Evans in January 2011, has helped show that a behavior called social anointing, in which monkeys rub fragrant liquids such as plant oils onto one another, occurs in more species than scientists previously knew. A recent graduate (May 2012) with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology, Jefferson won a scholarship to the University of California-Davis, thanks in large part to his research at the conservancy.

“I sat down with Dr. Evans, and we tossed around some research ideas,” Jefferson says. “She mentioned that she had come across this social form of anointing where individual monkeys would rub up against each other, which has been documented in other New World species but not in owl monkeys.”

Evans agreed to help Jefferson conduct a scientific study to find out for sure.

“Some scientists have suggested that capuchin monkeys were the only species that socially anointed,” she says, and owl monkeys are an older species. “Whenever you look at owl monkeys, you have the chance to advance the science of owl monkeys, because they are so poorly understood.”

Owl monkeys live in family groups and exhibit advanced social behaviors that bear some similarities to a human family, Evans says. The adults bond in monogamous pairs, and the father is the primary caretaker of infants. Family members all share food with one another, groom one another and help defend their territory.

‘No other place like it in the world’

The conservancy is home to 55 primates, almost all of which are owl monkeys. (The Monkey Jungle is home to 400 monkeys representing 21 species.) The students interact with and come to know all of the animals.

Because owl monkeys are nocturnal, the students conduct their research at the conservancy Tuesday and Thursday nights. Most of the research is done on monkeys who have been “retired” from research labs.

“The students seem to enjoy it,” says Evans. “They escape the urban jungle for this lush, tropical jungle that’s just a 30-minute car ride away.”

Their base of operations is a house on the property that dates back to 1904. Its venerable coral rock and Dade County pine have weathered hurricanes for more than a century, including the devastating hurricane of 1935 that decimated the Florida Keys and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that ravaged South Dade. Today it’s a haven for the FIU volunteers, filled with books and easy chairs, artwork and good vibes.

Says Evans, “I want the students to feel comfortable — at home — when they come here.”

The Wales native has been teaching at FIU for 17 years and involving students in her research from the beginning. She has purposefully created a “fairly unstructured” environment that allows students room to explore their research interests. They have responded by coming back year after year.

“They’re very self motivated,” she says. “I don’t have to push them at all.”

Tapanes, for example, has been volunteering at the conservancy for five years. She’s there three to four nights a week rather than the customary two. It’s a welcome respite from her hectic life, she says. “If you have a bad day, it just slips away once you get here.”

Social Anointing and Cortisol

In the case of Jefferson’s research, it turns out that the owl monkeys at the conservancy had discovered a new, invasive species of millipede that contains benzoquinine, a chemical that repels insects and parasites. The staff saw monkeys rubbing the juice of freshly squeezed millipedes on themselves. But were they intentionally spreading it onto each other or just coincidentally brushing against each other?

“We decided to do a study, making behavioral observations once a week,” Jefferson explains. “What we would do is present them with a millipede and watch to see if they socially anointed each other. Twenty-six of the 34 individuals we observed socially anointed by applying the substance to their fur and then rubbing against another individual.”

While Jefferson was interviewing for the U.C.-Davis doctorate program, a faculty member there was so intrigued by his findings that she encouraged him to present them at the American Society of Primatologists’ annual conference in California. “It was a way for me to integrate my research with the kind of research they do at U.C.-Davis,” Jefferson says. He intends to make his career in primate research.

Elizabeth Tapanes was a pre-veterinary student when she took Evans’ FIU course. But after years of research at the DuMond Conservancy, she intends to pursue a graduate degree in primatology instead.

“Being from a biology background, I’ve always been interested in behavior and in correlating behavior to other markers like genetics or hormones,” she says. “I’m interested in [the hormone] cortisol in particular, because it will give an indication of the level of stress.”

Cortisol also plays a role in heart disease in both monkeys and humans. Tapanes has collected urine samples from two owl monkeys named Spruce and Lilac, which the conservancy tried unsuccessfully to unite as a monogamous pair. In cooperation with doctoral student Josh Herrington, Tapanes hopes to be able to measure how that stressful episode affected cortisol levels.

“I want to see what their hormone levels were and whether I see any correlation with their behavior,” she says.

Evans said that the stress research will help humans better care for and breed captive owl monkeys.

“You have a genetics-based breeding recommendation, which you follow, and the possibility exists for creating unhappy monkeys,” she says. “[The monkeys] don’t care about the other monkey’s genes, but behavioral compatability is very important. Any window into stressors is interesting in a pair-bonding species.”

The collaboration benefits the conservancy’s work while offering FIU students a high-level research opportunity. It has also helped mobilize opinion against habitat destruction in the Amazon rain forest that threatens owl monkeys and thousands of other species.

“The FIU undergraduates are vital to the operation of the conservancy, an integrated program where we have science, public education and advocacy,” she says. “We’re using our owl monkeys as ambassadors to preserve tropical rainforest homes, and all our students become advocates for the owl monkeys. They are also advancing science.”