I came to Lake Nabugabo, Uganda, this summer to study mercury contamination in fish, but I was happy to discover that monkeys would also be a regular part of my life here.
Meet the Vervets!
This individual stopped and looked at me intently for a solid 5 minutes the first time I came face to face with her on my way to the kitchen. She is part of a group of 22 that live together, and regularly come through our camp.
Dr. Julie Teichroeb is a primatologist, currently based out of Duke University in North Carolina, who studies Vervet behaviour. She has been here at Nabugabo for the last few months, following around the Vervets every day. She spends most of her time following around one group. In fact, she and other researchers working here, have spent so much time following this group around that they’ve identified and named them all. This is Gertrude and hidden in her arms is her baby Gatsby. Together, they are watching a bird fly by.
Gertrude is the alpha female of this group. What exactly does that mean? Well, believe it or not, group dynamics are very developed amongst Vervets. This female, unlike subordinate females of the group, is often in charge. None of the other females would risk trying to hurt her or her baby, even for a bite to eat.
Now although group dynamics are well developed in these primates, we know little about them, and Julie works hard to shed light on various aspects of intriguing Vervet behaviors.
One of the main things she’s currently interested in is how spatial positioning in the group influences resource discovery and distribution amongst the group.
The way these primates are walking across this fence is not random. Typically, dominants tend to lead the group and subordinates follow. So dominants often end up finding and reaching food sources first. But these advantages of leading come with a price! One of the interesting things Julie told me is how leaders are at higher risk of predation and coming into contact with parasites because of their positioning in their group.
Another thing that Julie is particularly interested in these days is how individual Vervets make navigation decisions. Previous research on primates has shown that most of them don’t seem to plan routes to maximize finding food ahead of time. Generally, they simply visit the closest unoccupied food patch and grab their grub there. But recently, captive Vervets were found to plan their feeding routes 3-4 steps in advance to minimize the total distance they had to travel. This research received a great deal of attention in the past years seeing as how no other primates have been documented doing this.
This makes decisions made by wild Vervets intriguing. Can wild Vervets also plan their feeding routes several steps in advance? Here at Nabugabo, Julie is trying to figure this out.
For more information about Julie’s research on Vervets, you can visit her website at: www.julieteichroeb.com
And keep posted for Episode 5. More fishy Ugandan tales to come soon!