The pros (and cons) of being a primatologist – Part 2
In this second installment of interviews with three primatologists, Kaitlin Wellens, Dr Kathryn Shutt and Dr Alejandro Estrada explain what it takes to be a primatologist, how to find opportunities and why more people are needed in this challenging field.
When people think about primatology, what is most often misunderstood?
Kaitlin: As with any exotic and unique career, field primatology is somewhat romanticized. When you mention field work to people, the most common response is “Wow! That is amazing! You are so lucky you get to do that!” In many ways they are right, but what seems to be missing from the conversation is how difficult it can actually be.
More often than not, especially with smaller primates, you find yourself staring at a tree, neck strained, covered in mosquitoes, hoping you are seeing a primate and not a deceivingly life-like lump of leaves as you begrudgingly mark down “bad observation” on your data sheet. You rarely hike trailed paths, but instead army crawl after species designed to move through thickets of vines with ease only to lose your focal once you emerge in a clearing.
Dr. Estrada: People do not understand that there are several types of primatologists. Those that work in labs and zoos and those that work in the field, and that the research in these two settings complements each other. This combination allows documenting and better understanding of the behavior of our closest zoological relatives and of the underlying biological and social basis of such behaviors. All this with the hope that knowledge will also help improve our understanding of the behavior of our own species.
Where do you think young primatologists are needed most? Are there many opportunities?
Kaitlin: I think there are two areas that need young primatologists the most: conservation and habituating and exploring new field sites. There is a rising interest in research and jobs surrounding conservation, and it is extremely important. If we want to keep these species around, we need more people thinking creatively and working with local governments and schools to increase awareness and provide realistic strategies.
The second, habituating and discovering new field sites, is a difficult job mentally and physically, as you are not likely to see primates as often as you would working at an already established field site. However, this is the way some of the most interesting discoveries are made, and same species comparisons across field sites are some of the best ways to ask and answer really interesting questions.
The best way to find opportunities is through word of mouth. Primatologists often know someone from their own field seasons, conferences, or collaborations that can help you out. Another great resource is Primatejobs.com. This website posts researchers wanting field assistants and volunteers for a variety of different primate jobs.
Dr Shutt: Primatology could benefit from a platform – like Conservation Careers – to raise awareness of all the different positions and possibilities that exist, as well as training opportunities to learn basic field skills and get experience on the ground. There are so many different topics I could champion to continue: protected areas management, capacity building, conservation tools and environmental markets, ecotourism, and applied research such as health monitoring.
Organisations like Earthwatch are good breeding grounds for conservationists who want to get a feel for a bit of fieldwork but can’t invest in six months or a year. There are more and more of these kinds of three to six week placements that feed into larger programs of conservation and research. Being a research assistant is a great way to figure things out and I would recommend keeping an eye on academic postings for assistants.
Dr Estrada: Young primatologists are needed everywhere, both in the cities and in the field. There is still much to accomplish. Only a fraction of the 600-plus species and subspecies are known, and in many cases even such knowledge is superficial. In the cities, primatologists can work in local universities, both in tropical countries or in their country of origin, to train younger generations. You can also join local, regional or global NGOs and other agencies in support of your programs of research and/or conservation.
Conducting primate studies that excel in quality and publishing the results can build up your CV. Both academic degrees and strong CVs can be your entrance ticket to a job or to a higher level of education. Once there, you will be able to do much for our fellow primates.
What does it take to be a primatologist today?
Kaitlin: Field work is incredibly rewarding in ways that, for many primatologists, office work will never be. You see incredible behaviors, learn to appreciate nature and animals in a unique way and make some of the best memories of your life. But the challenges of field work are less often discussed. For every truly exciting and enchanting moment in the forest, there will also undoubtedly be mind-numbingly boring ones as you watch your subject take an afternoon snooze, which from my experience can last up to several hours.
The good news is, this leaves you plenty of time to think about your research and ask new questions from what you have seen in the field. Some of my best and worst ideas thus far have been thought up during chimpanzee nap time.
Dr Shutt: A few years ago, the British Army released a series of television ads that showed collages of roles – for example the challenges of being out at sea during horrendous storms or treating very ill patients. At the end they asked, “Think you’ve got what it takes?”
When I was in Gabon and the Central African Republic, there were days when just about every challenge was thrown at us: charged by silverback gorillas, run down by elephants, an allergic reaction to an ant bite, being lost in the forest with dead batteries, having to evacuate someone with malaria. I had this image of one of those British Army ads for primatology. There is this glamorized image of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall hugging chimps and gorillas and it’s so far from that in reality.
One of the strongest things that you benefit from in the field is patience. If you get bored sitting watching gorillas sleeping for hours and you’re covered in flies, you’re not going to make it collecting a year’s worth of data. You also need to be able to work really well with local people and build key relationships. The best thing you can do is be really honest with yourself and ask, how much do I care? You’ve got to love doing it.
Dr Estrada: It takes courage. You have to leave your comfort zone. You have to be willing to tolerate extreme heat and humidity typical of the tropics or extreme weather in those cases where the primate species of interest occur at high altitude or in northern latitudes. You have to enjoy hiking a lot. You have to enjoy being alone for days or months. You need to learn skills such as systematic data recording how to use a compass, GPS, and become knowledgeable of the plants in your study area. You have to be interested in learning about the local human inhabitants and how they see the primate studies you do.
I would suggest to aspiring field biologists that before they jet off, they picture being swarmed by army ants while stuck in vines and then remaining in the forest for another six hours. If you think that you would do that in order to catch two hours of fabulous social interactions, then this is the field for you.
Do any experiences stand out as being especially important in furthering your career?
Kaitlin: I strongly recommend that any graduate students or even undergrads create posters, give talks, or even just attend conferences in their area whenever possible. This is the best way to network and meet others to collaborate with as well as a way to showcase your work and receive helpful feedback. For most scientists, public speaking and learning how to communicate their work to others is an invaluable skill set and conferences provide a way to practice this.
Dr Estrada: All experiences are relevant, but one needs to have short and long-term goals. In my case, my initial short-term goal after completing my degree at Rutgers was to find a site where I could study primates in the field in southeast Mexico. My long-term goal was that once I had accomplished I could develop my primate research interests in one study site with one or two species. A secondary long-term goal was to explore other sites further south in Mexico to encompass other primate species and subspecies.
In this process, there are experiences that are very important and others that may not be as important, but, it is the additive effect of all that is critical in guiding you through different stages in your career.
What is your favorite memorable moment with a primate in the wild?
Kaitlin: There are so many! However, my absolute favorite thing to see in the field is adult male chimpanzees playing with infants. There is something about the juxtaposition of these enormous males that exude sheer strength and muscle gently tickling and chasing these tiny playful youngsters than never ceases to make me smile. The best is when you can hear the adults laughing along with the kids. Sometimes this can last for quite some time and it seems like the large males momentarily forget their current worry about competing for dominance and reconnect with a sweeter more child-like side of themselves. It never gets old.
Dr Estrada: Having, after many months of monitoring groups daily in the forest, the juveniles of some of the groups approach me with curiosity trying to cautiously engage me into their social play, while the adults were peacefully watching from the tree crowns.
Explore the world of primatology through tropical diseases, nearly-missed pig tramplings, disappearing populations and relationships with local communities in part one of this post.