American Society of (Awesomeness at 8AM) Primatology

Austin bid goodbye to hundreds of primatologists on Tuesday, with the closure of this year’s 34rd annual meeting of the American Society of Primatologists (ASP).

Although I’ve had the lucky fortune of serving on the conservation board in years past, I was never able to attend the conference until this year. My experience of conferences has been that they demand a lot of endurance of an attendee, with talks starting at 8am and ending any time after 5pm followed by amiable networking lubricated by alcohol. As a consequence sleep becomes a rare commodity.

Bonobos (Pan paniscus)

So what a pleasure it was when Saturday’s 8am Keynote address was given by Richard Wrangham who successfully elicited laughter from the hundred or so attendees who had yet to finish their first coffees. Titled “Chimpanzees, Bonobos and the Self-Domestication Hypothesis,” Wrangham proceeded to argue that Bonobos show similar morphological and behavioural characteristics to species that have been domesticated by humans. Wrangham believes that bonobos have undergone self-domestication and exhibit a variety of traits that are paedomorphic. The morphology of the skull looks juvenile-like, they are more playful, they have less sex differentiated behaviours, they’re more sexual, and less aggressive than other species. Bonobos are consequently thought to have evolved from a chimp-like ancestor in an environment where aggression conferred few benefits and natural selection acted to favour less aggressive individuals. Ultimately, the result is a self-domesticated species with paedomorphic phenotypes. Wrangham similarly argued that humans have undergone self-domestication – a cool idea that I need to do a lot more thinking about.

Sunday morning’s distinguished primatological address by Karen Strier was a stimulating hour of story-telling, titled “Behavior and Conservation over Ecological and Evolutionary Time.” Having only been exposed to Strier’s introductory textbook on Primate Behaviour I had no idea she was such a charismatic speaker. She took us on a nostalgic trip through her beginnings as a girl guide with matching barettes to an undergraduate working with mice, and finally her move to baboons in Africa. Her PhD work at Harvard led to a switch to Platyrrhines and her research on the Northern Muriqui in Brazil’s Atlantic forests. Her story went on, outlining her study animals, major scientific contributions and interesting avenues for future research. It was a fun-filled hour that ended with a standing ovation and my anxious anticipation for Strier’s future publications on Northern Muriqui’s abilities to tolerate fragmentation, widen their niches, and how her conservation work in Brazil is going to lead to their success.

Northern Muriqui (Brachyteles hypoxanthus)

Needless to say these 8am talks more than made up for the early mornings and semi-drinkable hotel coffee, and were a great beginning to days filled with stimulating primatological research.

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