Leading Research in Great Ape Locomotion – Dr Julia Myatt
Dr Julia Myatt, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham, UK, gives her story of how she became a leading researcher in the field of great ape locomotion and animal behaviour, along with some advice for aspiring researchers.
Where did your career in wildlife research start, how did you get into it?
I never had a grand plan to become a lecturer from an early age; I just followed my interests. I studied three sciences before university which led me on to doing an Applied Biology BSc. I’d always been interested in animal behaviour but it was only once I was at university that I realised it could actually be a career. I conducted some undergraduate research on primates at Bristol Zoo and also worked in the Entomology team at Syngenta, followed by working in the Insect Ecology team at Lancaster University. This allowed me to work with PhD students and Post-docs, which made me want to conduct a PhD too.
I then joined the University of Birmingham on a PhD looking at ecomorphology and locomotion in orang-utans where I had the opportunity to live in Sumatra for a year and also spend time studying other great apes, looking at anatomy and muscle fibre types in the lab. Continuing the locomotion theme I joined the Royal Veterinary College of London (RVC) for my post-doc looking at the dynamics of group movement and social interactions. For example: Are the fastest runners always at the front of the pack in a hunt? Does manoeuvrability play a role in the group dynamics in large African carnivores?
I also looked at sheep.
Yes! By recording sheep movement with GPS you can understand group movements and interactions – understanding how our domestic animals behave is just as important as wild animals, particularly for informing management practices.
How did you go from studying apes, to carnivores, to sheep, to now lecturing at Birmingham?
I realised while I was doing my post-doc that I really wanted to gain more teaching experience, and at that point, a position opened at Birmingham for a temporary lecturer. This led to permanent job and here I am. I am still working with RVC on the data we gathered but we have exciting research lined up for next year too.
A group of scientists at the University of Birmingham have received a NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) grant to conduct research in collaboration with Twycross Zoo. We are going to be integrating our different areas of expertise to look at novel ways to design enclosures and enrich their habitats. We don’t just want the animals to be content, we want them to be potential candidates for release into the wild. But we also want to combine this with looking at how zoo animals are kept within social groups.
This is also a great opportunity for our BSc and MSc students to be involved with data collection, where their input can contribute to publications and enhance the welfare of the species they are studying. I really think that undergraduate projects shouldn’t just be about collecting data where you already know the outcome. I want them to be contributing to the scientific field and collecting useful data on real projects. Applied research is where the next challenges will be. We need to use our knowledge to protect species in the field.
Technology is becoming a big part of field research, but do you think it can ever replace personal observations?
Technology is no replacement for having good field staff conducting observations. We can tell a lot from GPS/accelerometer collars on animals and they’ve increased our knowledge no end, but we will never be able to just sit at a laptop and know exactly what each animal in a pack is doing. There are subtleties that technology can’t detect and some questions it can’t answer. It also wouldn’t be ethical to collar every single animal in a population whereas human observations are as non-invasive as possible once the animal is habituated. Not to mention the expense of technology often isn’t covered by funding.
You’ve worked on some well-known and charismatic species, but do you think we should be researching and funding those that are less enigmatic too?
It is purely chance that I have worked with such species! I think that more funding should be given to the less well-known species, but I also understand that we can use the flagship species to gain funding. It’s a hard balance but I think the general public are beginning to recognise that there is more than just an orang-utan in a jungle. There are lots of others that are worth protecting too.
For young professionals that are looking at getting into research and conservation, what is the most important thing to have on their CV?
Volunteering over just experience. It says a lot about a person that they are willing to give their time even if the position isn’t directly relevant. You can start with your local wildlife trusts and show commitment for an hour a week for a couple of years. You need stamina for field life so you need to prove you are capable and can build your skills. It’s great to do more than one thing if you can, even if it’s just for a week – start small!
Any last words of advice for an aspiring conservationist?
Be aware of what’s going on in NGOs and the work that is currently being conducted there. They can also be good places to get that first volunteering position. Conservation Careers is great for finding opportunities but use your lecturers to network and look elsewhere too.
Written by Carolyn Dunford. Thanks to Dr Julia Myatt for her time, input and photos.