High-level social linkages in wild chacma baboons
In 2019, I started a new project studying the behavioral ecology of baboons on the Swebeswebe Wildlife Estate, Limpopo Province, South Africa. This population of chacma baboons faces a novel suite of ecological pressures that mimics aspects of the selective environment thought to have produced the multilevel societies of hamadryas baboons and early Homo. In collaboration with Drs. Louise Barrett and Peter Henzi (U-Lethbridge), we will examine whether there is sufficient plasticity in the chacma baboon’ multi-male–multi-female social system, under the right ecological conditions, to allow us to identify possible points of selection underpinning the emergence of higher-level social linkages. Specifically, we will examine whether the high predation pressure and limited sleeping site availability that characterize this population (i) represents the conditions required for the emergence of high-level social linkages, (ii) promotes coordinated inter-troop movements, and, (iii) drives a shift in internal socio-spatial dynamics linked to males.
The thermal physiology of wild vervet monkeys
In a large collaborative project (UW-Madison, U-Lethbridge, U-Witwatersrand, U-Pretoria, UNISA, U-Western Australia), we are examining the thermal physiology of wild vervet monkeys, through an investigation of the behavioural, ecological and social determinants of thermoregulatory competence. Vervet monkeys are ideal model organisms for a study of this type because they are obligatorily social, experience a wide temperature range in arid environments, and manifest a range of specialized thermoregulatory adaptations. Between 2010 and 2018, encompassing a full drought cycle, we established the only long-term data set on the core body temperature patterns of a wild non-human primate, having collected over 150 ‘monkey-years’ of continuous, high-resolution body temperature data; along with contemporaneous data on the animals’ behaviour and local climate. This is by far the largest data set of its kind from any endotherm. This study is unique, in that is allows us to probe the intersection of our animals’ ecological and social strategies, the degree of flexibility they display, and what consequences this holds for their survival and reproductive success. This, in turn, provides vital information concerning the long-term viability of vervet populations in the face of ongoing climate change.
Thermoregulation and hominin biological evolution
In collaboration with Drs. Warren Porter, Dave Lovelace and Paul Mathewson (UW-Madison), we will examine the role that local climate played in shaping the morphology, behavior and thermal competence of our hominin ancestors. To achieve this goal, a biophysical model (Niche MapperTM) will be used to (a) model the physiological costs and benefits of hominin bipedalism, hairlessness, large body sizes, and activity patterns, (b) parameterize the range of hominin phenotypes suited to paleoclimate reconstructions across the timeline of hominin evolution, and (c) validate these model parameterizations by assessing the thermal performance of representative ‘Ardipithecus ramidus’, ‘Australopithecus afarensis’, and ‘Homo erectus’ models. This project represents an important first step in understanding the role that climate played in shaping human biological evolution, and whether the morphological variants of our hominin ancestors are underpinned by the selective pressures of climatic stress and thermoregulation.