What Does a Canadian Primatologist Do?

When I was growing up, I heard stories about Jane Goodall and her work in Gombe with the chimps. We all did, right? I heard stories about other researchers, too, who were able to travel the world and make amazing discoveries. These primatologists, marine biologists, and archaeologists seemed to have the coolest jobs! Sometimes stories about these types ended up in fictionalized form on the big screen, too. My husband actually took an Archaeology class at Simon Fraser University during his undergrad, and the first words out of the professor’s mouth were: “If you’re only in this class because you want to be Indiana Jones, then I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.” (My husband, of course, was disappointed.)

Like most students, I heard about these adventures and the resulting discoveries—not the hard work that actually enabled the researchers to have those adventures (let alone what that work really looked like). I still look up to those researchers from my youth (and their adventures—fictionalized or not) but, even now, I had some questions about how someone could pursue that adventurous career path in real life.

So, I was delighted to talk to Dr. Colin Chapman, a professor from the Department of Anthropology and McGill School of Environment (McGill University).

Dr Colin ChapmanHe is also the Canada Research Chair in Primate Ecology and Conservation, a Killam Research Fellow, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He was able to explain to me what it’s really like to be a primatologist in Canada today and what students should know if they want to become one.

1. What sparked your interest in primatology and conservation?

I have always been interested in watching animals, and trying to understand what they do and why was fascinating. My father tells a story about when I was very young and was losing at a game of Scrabble. He spelled out “primate,” and I asked what it meant. He told me what primates were and why they were interesting. I have not changed my interest since then.

Although I have dedicated much of my life to the conservation of primates and the ecosystems in which they live, my commitment has evolved over time as I witnessed the plight of primates and tropical rainforests around the world. Twenty years ago the world was not really aware of the plight of primates in the tropics, one barely ever heard the word “bushmeat“, and even the term “conservation biology” was new to the vocabulary of science. As my career took me to different parts of the world, I witnessed the plight of primates first hand, saw trees being felled and huge areas cleared, and saw primates in the cooking pot. These experiences made me want to try to do something for the animals that I loved to watch.

2. Tell us about your current research!

At the most general level, my research uses experimental and observational approaches to determine how plant communities influence primates (population regulation, determinants of group size) and how animals influence their environment (herbivory, seed dispersal, community restoration). I typically ask questions in these areas in such a way that the answers have direct application to primate conservation. My current research focuses on using long-term data (40+ years) on primate and plant communities to address conservation questions, such as what are the impacts of climate change, how do primates respond to logging, or are tropical communities in a non-equilibrium state. Tom Struhsaker has been a tremendous backer in this effort, as he has provided with me data from the early 1970s until the late 1980s.

3. What does a typical “day in the life” of a primatologist look like?

A typical day for me depends on where I am. If I am at McGill University in Montreal, it simply involves what days do for most people: sitting behind a desk working on my computer. I spend time analyzing data, writing papers—and a lot of time writing grant applications.

In the field, however, it is much different. I typically get up at 5:00 AM, get organized for the day, have coffee and breakfast. At 7:30 AM, I meet with my Ugandan field assistants who have worked with me for a long time (some have worked with me for 25 years!), and send different groups out to do different things. For example, one team of two will watch the red colobus, while the other team of two will do inventories of trees or collect primate foods. I tend to spend my day with the monkey team and either watch the focal red colobus group, or do censuses throughout the park. I view the censuses as critical as it shows a presence to the local community of researchers in the park in all areas. It is important to show the community that people are interested in the park. I think they ask themselves why someone would travel half-way around the world to see the park, and they know that the park must be important to make someone travel that distance, but they might not know why. Most researchers and most eco-tourist operations work in only one area, so they influence, say, 1000 people near that area, but by travelling around the whole park, my team influences thousands of people at each stop – hopefully having much more of an impact.

The censuses also provide me with an understanding of how variable the forest and the primate communities can be. For example, in Kibale, blue monkeys are common in the north, but slowly decline in abundance to the south. There is no obvious ecological reason I see or have been able to measure that explains this pattern. Similarly, 10 years ago baboons were rare around the field station, and now they are very abundant in the area.

4. What is your favourite about your job?

I can easily say that my favourite part of my job is to watch monkeys, see what they are doing, and speculate on why. I feel honoured and amazed that I am actually paid to do this.

5. What would you tell a group of students to do or to study if they wanted to pursue a career similar to yours? Are there particular aptitudes or character traits that are helpful in the field?

If you are just starting a career that you hope will lead to studying or conserving primates, my advice would be to get an advanced degree in Biology or Anthropology. If you go the Anthropology route, make sure you take lots of general biology courses, such as ecology and evolution. Also, it is a very good idea to get some statistical or modeling training, and not just the basics. But it is also critical to get some experience. If that experience can be with primates, then great—but experience with fish or ground squirrels is also great, as it illustrates that you can do the type of work that is needed. Remember that there is not just one route to succeed.

If you can get great grades, then wonderful. That helps. If you cannot, then do the best you can, but be sure to get lots of experience. And, most importantly, make sure you talk to professors who can help. (Yes, all professors are busy, but the good ones make time.) There are courses in all universities that have titles like “independent studies”, and these courses allow you to work in a professor’s lab or with a post-doc or Ph.D. student. These courses are often great for all parties involved, but they particularly help students starting their careers since they learn what it is like to be an academic and learn the professional code of conduct. This is something that you have to learn and the sooner you learn it, the better.

Canada is a great place to become a primatologist. While there are not that many people in Canada studying primates, there are some very good people. The Canadian government is also generous, relative to a lot of countries, in giving out scholarships. Remember that if you ask a professor to take you on as a graduate student, the professor is often agreeing to provide a lot of money for your tuition and for some other expenses through their very hard-earned grants. If you, as an applying student, can get a grant or other funding for tuition, then the supervising professor is usually happy to spend the money that would have been ear-marked for your tuition on more research-related topics, which means that the professor can give the new student more freedom in selecting a research topic. These are the sorts of things one learns in independent studies, not to mention finding a supervising professor who (hopefully) will be willing to help you write your application.

It is also helpful to look on professors’ websites to see what they are doing and what they say about their research programs and what they’re looking for in prospective students. For example, on my lab site I encourage interested students to read some of my recent papers and consider which aspects of my research program interest them most. Once they have some ideas, I encourage them to contact me to start a correspondence.

6. If a someone really wants to have a career working with primates, is a Ph.D. mandatory?

If you want to do hands-on research or work with primates, then (as much as I hate to say this) pursuing a Ph.D. is a must. Without one, you can help out at primate orphanages or even run one, but having a Ph.D. is a ticket—it opens doors.

But remember that you can often switch trajectories. For example, I am currently working with a student who has a computer science degree and is now working with me pursing a degree in primatology and doing wonderful things.

That said, there are always ways to get involved in conservation and make a positive difference if you want to—even if you don’t end up directly in the field.

7. You have started a project that links primate conservation with public health for the people living in the village just outside of Kibale National Park (Uganda). What is the connection between these two issues?

The concept of linking public health and conservation is simple. We wanted the local community to feel as though they were also getting some benefit from the work that we have been doing in the park, which is a protected conservation area. When we asked community members what they wanted from the park, they said jobs and money. Sadly, we could not meet that need for many people. Second on their list was something we might translate into “health insurance”, and we could do that. We started the Kibale Health and Conservation Project to offer health care, which is subsidized from donations from Canada, so that community members can see a nurse at no cost (they pay for the treatment, but the consultation is free). A consultation would normally cost two days’ labour for most people. So, instead of waiting and hoping your child that “might” have malaria gets better, the parent brings the child in and sees if the fever is caused by malaria and gets treatment. If they do not have the money for the treatment, then it’s no problem. The money is loaned to them by the clinic. In about 6000 people per year over six years, only one person has not paid us back.

This type of community-centred conservation is an example of how you can help with primate conservation, even if you do not get a Ph.D. These types of projects require skills of all kinds, making it possible to devote your life to primates and conservation, even if you’re not the head researcher. We can all help.

For more information about the Kibale Health and Conservation Project, contact Dr. Chapman at Colin.Chapman@McGill.ca.

For more information about the Jane Goodall Institute’s Community-Centred Conservation projects, contact Zac at zac@janegoodall.ca.

Photo Credit: JGI DRC

Photo Credit: JGI DRC

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7 responses to “What Does a Canadian Primatologist Do?

  1. This was a wonderful and insightful read. This fact-

    ” If they do not have the money for the treatment, then it’s no problem. The money is loaned to them by the clinic. In about 6000 people per year over six years, only one person has not paid us back.”

    I found to be particularly moving. It’s amazing what happens when you trust others to do the right thing. Nothing is as powerful a motivator as trust.

    • Thanks for your comments! It really is amazing to see what can happen when people believe in a cause and in each other.

  2. I would be interested in being a primatologist specifically to study primate behaviour and how human impact within the area has led to a change in their ways of life.

  3. This was a very informative article. I’m currently doing an undergrad degree in Biological Anthropology at U of T and am very interested in the field of primatology – from both an evolutionary and conservation-based perspective, so I very much appreciate the information on the state of primatology in Canada.
    I find the involvement of local communities essential to primate research. Fostering a anthropological understanding of the relationships and interactions between primate and human populations is certainly key to successful primate conservation. The link drawn between public health and primate conservation in this article is one excellent example of such a holistic, community-centred approach to primate research.

    • Thanks for your comments, Matthew! It’s great to hear about your research interests, and I’m really happy to see that you’re interested in the community-centred conservation approach. Good luck with your degree!

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