An interview with primate researcher Dr. Karen Strier
Conservation of muriqui and Atlantic Forest requires ongoing support
Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com
January 10, 2008
In Brazil's Threatened Atlantic Forest a Family of Primates Displays 'Egalitarian' Behavior, Surviving without Hierarchies or Dominance
The Atlantic Forest stretches in patches along Brazil's east coast. It is a biological paradise that barely survived the previous centuries. From the Portuguese and Spanish colonization to the present day, this ecosystem has been under threat. Widespread deforestation began with sugarcane plantations and demands for timber; later coffee production took its toll. Currently, less than ten percent of the original forest remains intact and what exists is fragmented. The forest faces new threats by Brazil's growing urban population. Both the megacities of Sao Paulo (the world's fifth largest city) and Rio de Janiero have emerged and grown up in what used to be tropical forest.
Muriquis in Brazil. Photo by Carla B. Possamai
Yet, perhaps the greatest treasure in the Atlantic Forest is its primates. Two primate genera exist only in this fragmented ecosystem. The first is the lion tamarin, which includes four separate species; these sunset-orange primates are strikingly different from their Amazonian relations. The forest also boasts South America's largest primates, the Southern and Northern Muriqui. The muriqui are unique among all primates, because they are not territorial and do not display aggressive behavior. The IUCN has classified the Southern Muriqui as endangered, while the Northern Muriqui is critically endangered. Dr. Karen Strier has studied the Northern Muriqui in the field for twenty-five years. A professor of zoology and anthropology at the University of Madison Wisconsin, she is the author of Faces in the Forest: the Endangered Muriqui Monkeys of Brazil and a new textbook entitled Primate Behavioral Ecology.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. KAREN STRIER
Mongabay: What is the focus of your research?
Strier: My research is aimed at understanding primate behavioral ecology from a comparative perspective, and I am especially interested in understanding population variation and the ways in which demographic and ecological conditions affect behavior. Most of my work now is focused on how scientific knowledge can contribute to informed conservation efforts.
Mongabay: How did you become interested in this area? What is your background?
Dr. Karen Strier
Mongabay: Do you have any advice for students hoping to become scientists?
Strier: Take as many science courses as you can, gain as much research experience as possible, and keep searching for an area of study that you are passionate about.
Mongabay: What is you favorite place in the tropics?
Strier: My long-term field site in southeastern Brazil, where I have been studying northern muriqui monkeys for more than 25 years.
Mongabay: Having spent 25 years doing field research in the Atlantic Forest, can you describe the changes you have seen in the forest during that time?
Strier: The Atlantic Forest already underwent extensive deforestation during the early 1900s, and by the time I made my first trip there in 1982, there was only about 6% of the original Atlantic Forest remaining. Over the years, I have watched the Brazilian government and NGOs make enormous efforts to protect the remaining Atlantic Forest.
Mongabay: What do you see as the greatest threats to the Atlantic Forest?
Strier: The greatest threats continue to be how fragmented the original forest has become. Small fragments are more vulnerable to edge effects, and the smaller populations of wildlife they support are more vulnerable to extinction. Hunting is not a problem in the area I work, but it is in other parts of the remaining Atlantic Forest.
Mongabay: Do you see climate change as a particular threat to the rainforest?
Strier: Yes, especially in the Atlantic forest, which has already been so reduced in size and fragmented.
Mongabay: What must be done to ensure conservation of the Atlantic forest?
Strier: There is a strong conservation ethic in southeastern Brazil, and this has helped protect the remaining Atlantic forest. These efforts need to be maintained and supported, so that the resources necessary for conservation, and for offering alternatives to the local human communities, are available.
Mongabay: What is the difference between the northern and southern muriqui?
Muriquis in Brazil. Photo by Carla B. Possamai
Mongabay: What drew you to studying the northern muriqui?
Strier: The muriquis I study were good models for evaluating the ways in which primate diets affect their social behavior and grouping patterns. On the one hand, they have teeth and jaws suited for consuming a lot of abundant leaves; on the other hand they travel by rapid, suspensory locomotion, which is usually associated with far-ranging foraging for dispersed fruit sources. This model of food--social organization had been developed from the perspective of Old World primates. I wanted to determine whether muriquis were mainly fruit or leaf eaters, and depending on the answer, whether their social behavior conformed with the predictions at the time.
Muriqui in Brazil. Photo by Carla B. Possamai
Other the years, with my students and collaborators, we have also investigated muriqui reproductive biology, and I am now especially interested in understanding the factors that affect their population dynamics as well as individual life histories. Muriquis have slow, almost ape-like life histories, which makes them even more interesting from a comparative perspective. At the same time, because they are so critically endangered, understanding their behavior, ecology, reproductive patterns, and life histories can contribute to assessing the viability of populations and ultimately, to their conservation.
Mongabay: What are the causes of the northern muriqui being critically endangered?
Strier: The greatest threats to northern muriquis are the small sizes of the remaining populations, which are also isolated from one another. We now know of only three forests that support more than 200 muriquis, one of which is where my research has been based. Some of the other populations are much smaller, and therefore at greater risk of genetic and demographic problems that could lead to their extinction.
Mongabay: What is being done to save the species?
Strier: The northern muriquis have been fortunate to have become flagships for conservation in Brazil. The Brazilian government has supported a number of conservation initiatives on their behalf, and there is a large team of Brazilian and international researchers, conservationists, and NGOs all involved in working to save the species. Continued prohibitions on hunting and increased habitat protection are important. There are also a number of management plans underway, including the development of forest corridors to link isolated populations, and in two cases, isolated females from other populations were successfully translocated into new populations to stimulate population growth and gene flow.
Mongabay: How do you view the state of global primate conservation today? What more should be done?
Dr. Strier's students in training