Primates, especially humans, are extremely social animals. Nonhuman primates like monkeys and apes are well known for their lengthy grooming bouts with one another, and most species live in tight social groups. Social networks have allowed humans to exchange ideas, share innovations, and develop science and religion.
But what drives this social behavior? Why do primates have an urge to interact with others? How does this sociality affect other areas of a primate’s life, like reproduction and parasite infections? My research is aimed at better understanding these links between primate social behavior and ecology and health.
My most recent work, Behavioral Ecology of Primate-Parasite Interactions (Dissertation Purdue University, 2013) examined possible effects of social grooming on parasite infection patterns in vervet monkeys at Loskop Dam Nature Reserve, South Africa. I argue that social grooming presents a significant cost to individuals in the form of increased risk for transmitting pathogens. I have presented this work at the meetings of the International Primatological Society, American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and the Indiana Academy of Sciences. My research has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, and the Purdue Research Foundation.
Results from this study are published in:
Wren, Brandi T., Thomas R. Gillespie, Joseph W. Camp, and Melissa J. Remis. 2015. Helminths of vervet monkeys, Chlorocebus aethiops, from Loskop Dam Nature Reserve, South Africa. Comparative Parasitology 82(1):101-108.
Abstract: Behavioral Ecology of Primate-Parasite Interactions It has long been asserted that social grooming has two major functions in primate society: removing parasites and maintaining social bonds. While there are plenty of data to support the idea that grooming helps to form and maintain social bonds among individuals, very little data exist to support that it removes parasites. Further, researchers have typically focused solely on parasites that live on the outside of the body (ectoparasites), to the exclusion of other parasitic microorganisms that have the potential to cause poor health or even death.
I used parasitological and behavioral data from vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus aethiops) at Loskop Dam Nature Reserve, South Africa, to examine links between infection status with parasites and grooming behaviors. I focused on gastrointestinal parasites, and examined whether social grooming facilitates or inhibits transmission of these parasites. From June 2009 – July 2010, I collected 511 hours of behavioral data and 278 fecal samples from recognized individual vervets. I conducted focal follows on 55 individuals from three study groups. I used continuous recording to obtain data on amount of time spent grooming others, time spent being groomed by others, number of grooming partners, and amount of time spent in other direct social contact.
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