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Shedding Light on Primate Behavior

Dr. Wolovich and her friends the owl monkeys.
Dr. Wolovich and her friends the owl monkeys.
photo of Dr. Nancy Morvillo

Jul 24, 2017

By Dr. Nancy Morvillo
Professor of Biology

Primate behavior is something most students only read about in textbooks, but this is not so for a group of FSC biology majors, who spent an exciting summer researching nocturnal owl monkeys.    

Megan Blomquist ‘19, Guerbine Fils-Aime ‘19, and Madeline Sliwa ‘18 lived and worked at the DuMond Conservancy for Primates and Tropical Forests in Miami. Along with their advisor, Dr. Christy Wolovich, Associate Professor of Biology, the group conducted research at the Conservancy, which is located on the grounds of Monkey Jungle.

Because owl monkeys are nocturnal, observations of feeding behavior were done at night with the aid of flashlights and camera traps equipped with infrared technology. Countless hours were spent obtaining and preparing samples, making audio recordings, and analyzing video footage.

Madeline Sliwa feeding an owl monkey.

“Owl monkeys are unique in that they are the only nocturnal species of monkey,” Dr. Wolovich said, “Their social behavior is interesting because they form socially monogamous pairs and the adult males do the majority of infant caregiving (carrying, grooming, and sharing food).  Yet, many details of their behavioral ecology remain unknown because they are difficult to observe at night in the forest canopy.”

In addition to examining feeding behavior, the students collected urine samples from twenty-four monkeys, which will be analyzed during the upcoming academic year. They also observed owl monkey responses to chemical cues after exposing the monkeys to fecal samples gathered from a variety of predators (e.g. Florida panthers) and non-predators (e.g. spider monkeys) to determine how males and females respond to potential threats.

“I loved going to the DuMond Conservancy and observing owl monkeys,” said Blomquist, “because it gave me the opportunity to apply things I had learned in class to real life.”

In addition to the research, the students also gained experience preparing diets for the primates and assisting with tours of Monkey Jungle for school-aged children.

Another plus for Sliwa, who is applying to veterinary school this summer, was the connection this experience has to her future career, “I've gotten to shadow an exotic veterinarian and have been doing some animal husbandry at Monkey Jungle with the primates,” she said, “It's been really fun for me!”

Guerbine Fils-Amie recording owl monkey sounds for research.

“Doing research in Miami is probably the most rewarding thing I have done in my college career so far,” Sliwa said, “Being able to apply the knowledge I have learned from my courses, and my Animal Behavior class specifically, was amazing. I can say with absolute certainty I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”

The DuMond Conservancy provides educational programs on primates, and has worked to conserve primate habitats across the globe. Since 1933, Monkey Jungle has provided researchers with the unique opportunity to study primates in a semi-naturalistic environment. Researchers from several institutions currently use the facilities. Dr. Wolovich began her research program at the Conservancy during her graduate studies at the University of Miami.

“The DuMond Conservancy is interested in forming a long-lasting partnership with FSC,” Dr. Wolovich said, “This will provide outstanding opportunities for FSC students to study primate behavior.”

The work was supported by a Florida Southern College Faculty-Student Collaborative Research Grant.  The data collected will further Dr. Wolovich’s research, and may lead to presentations and publications by the students in the near future.

“This research experience really helped me understand some of the skills I'll need for working in the field of environmental biology in the future,” Fils-Aime commented, “I enjoyed getting to know the monkeys and their behaviors.”