About This Project
Gorillas, like people, are incredibly social animals. I am studying how a clumped and social-foraging resource influences gorilla relationships. I hypothesize that a clumped resource (an artificial termite mound) will affect space and social behavior of all male bachelor groups and one-male multi-female family groups differently. In this study we will measure spatial positions and behavioral interactions of the gorillas to test how the artificial termite mound influences these groups.
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What is the context of this research?
Primates display remarkable diversity in how their groups are organized, and many primatologists have sought (and still seek) explanations for this diversity (Isbell & Young, 2002). The environment in which a group of primates chooses to live can directly influence how they individuals within a group interact (or do not) (Eisenberg et al., 1972; van Schaik & van Hooff, 1983). Although group living comes with numerous benefits (protection, mating opportunities), it also facilitates within-group competition for food, which is determined, in part, by food distribution. Clumped, high-value foods incite more intense competition than more distributed foods, and access to these food items is determined by factors such as rank, proximity, and kin.
What is the significance of this project?
Western lowland gorillas are more frugivorous and live in smaller groups compared to mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) (Doran-Sheehy et al., 2004). Western lowland gorillas are also not as well-studied as mountain gorillas. With limited behavioral interactions between individuals, there is little information about Western lowland gorillas using social spacing, perhaps a better indicator of gorilla relationships to infer social organization of groups (Martin & Bateson, 2007). My study will be one of few to experimentally test Western lowland gorilla socioecology and social relationships as a function of space. This is important, as sociality is key component of their lifestyle and well-being both in their dwindling natural habitat and zoological environments.
What are the goals of the project?
This study aims to examine the socioecology of 2 groups of western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla) housed at Zoo Atlanta. I will test how a high-quality, patchy, socially-accessible food resource (in the form of an artificial termite mound) affects space and social behavior, and whether two gorilla-specific social systems – all male bachelor groups and one-male multi-female family groups – behave differently when exposed to this resource. Data collectors will record both spatial (X/Y coordinate) positions and behavioral interactions of all gorillas in both groups. I will look at variables such as inter-individual distance, dominance rank of individual, and to the termite mound on days when it is filled versus non-filled days.
Artificial termite mounds are creeping up in zoo habitats all over the world, and studies have shown that the welfare of apes benefits greatly from them.
As part of my doctoral research, I am documenting how a clumped and social-foraging resource (simulated by the termite mound), influences gorilla relationships. Gorillas, like people, are incredibly social animals. They live in groups and make their decisions based on the actions of others. They have preferences about who they spend time with, and where. These decisions, however, can change based on a lot of environmental factors, such as the location and abundance of food. In the wild, Western lowland gorillas eat fruit - a patchily-distributed resource which grows in specific locations in limited amounts, so competition between gorillas is high.
The University of Georgia's Research Instrument Shop is constructing the termite mound to be installed in August 2018. Data on the gorillas has been under way for several months, and post-install data will be collected for four months subsequent to the install. Data collection will commence immediately after the install. An acclimation period is not needed, given the attraction of the novel (and tasty) activity and neophilic nature of young gorillas.
Aug 10, 2018
Aug 11, 2018
Termite Mound Construction
Aug 31, 2018
Termite Mound Installation
Nov 30, 2018
End Data Collection
Meet the Team
Currently chasing my PhD, with dreams of becoming an influential behavioral biologist. I work in the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia, under Dr. Dorothy Fragaszy and in collaboration with the EthoCebus Project (http://ethocebus.net/) and Zoo Atlanta.
Although my background is in biology, I am interested in animal behavior - more specifically, tool use and sociality in non-human primates. My research examines behavioral and personality characteristics of a group of tool-using capuchin monkeys (Sapajus libidinosus) in northeastern Brazil. My dissertation work currently addresses the socioecology of Western lowland gorillas at Zoo Atlanta.
My passion for primatology, and my multitasking abilities manifest themselves in the many side projects I take on. In addition to my dissertation work, I am involved in several "side projects", looking into stable isotope analysis as a means to study capuchin diet, as well as investigating manual function in primates (how they use their hands). I'm also interested in wildlife and science education, particularly in zoological settings.
Courtney Hannah Meyer
With a goal of becoming a Curator of Mammals, I am currently working at Zoo Atlanta as a primate keeper with the oh-so-fun and intelligent Gorillas. I started at Zoo Atlanta as an Intern in the elephant department last August. In October, I was offered a Seasonal Primate keeper position which I eagerly accepted, only to find myself falling in love with these primates. I just recently accepted my full-time position as a primate keeper.
I have a bachelor of science in psychology from the University of Georgia which is where I found my passion for animal behavior. I worked as a research assistant in Dr. Fragaszy's Primate Cognition and Behavior lab working on a Macaw nest behavior project and helping Caroline Jones with her many projects. Last summer, I helped collect social organization data for her gorilla project. My journey through animal behavior has been short so far but I know it is a life long passion of mine.
I have always had compassion for animals and the environment; always wondering why they are the way they are and developing connections with them. Understanding wildlife is important for conserving our environment. Wildlife gives us cues to what is wrong and what needs to be changed. The hard part if figuring out how to make that change.
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