Mommy dearest: how maternal care shapes juvenile stress in rhesus monkeys

New York University
Caldwell, New Jersey
Open Access
DOI: 10.18258/2541
Raised of $2,300 Goal
Funded on 6/23/14
Successfully Funded
  • $2,301
  • 100%
  • Funded
    on 6/23/14

About This Project

What's it like to be a juvenile rhesus macaque? Living in highly social and often aggressive groups, rhesus macaque infants depend on mom for more than just food. Displays of dominance are common and, depending on mom's rank, a rhesus infant can be exposed to varying levels of stress early in life. How does this early life environment (most of it mediated by mom) affect the physiology and cognition of monkeys in their juvenile years?

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What is the context of this research?

The rhesus macaque is an Old World monkey closely related to humans. Rhesus moms (like human moms) do their best to keep their babies safe, secure, and healthy. But living in such a complex, hierarchical society sometimes results in maltreatment and neglect of infant monkeys. When this happens, dramatic and sometimes permanent changes to an individual's stress response systems can occur, and an individual's willingness to take risks or confront threats can also change. What do these changes look like? We can get at this biology by measuring hormones in saliva and feces, recording behavioral data, and presenting the juveniles with cognitive tests.

What is the significance of this project?

The rhesus monkey has long been used as a model for humans. With the development of non-invasive techniques to assess the underlying biology of mammals, we are now able to travel to the field and collect samples from without disturbing the animals at all. This study will illuminate how the early life of that individual's development. We will be able to see how maternal neglect and early life stressors might have an effect on an individual's ability to respond mentally and physically to stressful situations later in life.

What are the goals of the project?

  • To develop a reliable technique for obtaining saliva samples from juvenile primates.
  • To elucidate the relationship between early life environment and the biological stress response.
  • To understand how maternal care affects a rhesus monkey's risk-taking behavior and chronic stress levels.


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I will be working on Cayo Santiago, a small island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico inhabited by 1500+ rhesus monkeys. I'll need to live in Punta Santiago (a small village near the dock where the boat for Cayo leaves) for 2-3 months this summer, and I'll have to pay rent and roundtrip airfare.

Because this project is completely non-invasive, I'll need proper lab supplies so I can collect saliva and fecal samples from the monkeys. These supplies (lab grade oral swabs, storage tubes, centrifuge tubes) will allow me to collect samples without disturbing any natural behaviors. The assay kits are laboratory materials that I will use when I return in the fall with my samples to measure levels of stress hormones from the saliva and fecals I've collected.

Meet the Team

Lauren Petrullo
Lauren Petrullo

Team Bio

I am a Master's Candidate at New York University in the department of anthropology. After getting my B.A. in Anthropology from NYU, I took a year off to pursue independent research projects in evolutionary biology at the American Museum of Natural History. My M.A. will be in biological anthropology, with a focus on primatology, primate behavior, genetics, and endocrinology. I hope to focus on developmental questions that will ultimately inform perspectives in human biology, captive animal management, and wildlife conservation.

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