Monday, 15 October 2012

A Swiss primatologist who arrived at UWA in April to work in the School of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology probably won’t mind too much if his students start ‘monkeying around’ occasionally in class.

Assistant Professor Cyril Grueter is used to it. After all, he spent almost two years in Yunnan – a remote mountainous region of China – studying a group of 400 black and white snub-nosed monkeys.

The monkeys – never seen outside China – live in similar social groups to humans and Assistant Professor Grueter observed them in their wild state to investigate the evolutionary pathways that lead to our multilevel societies. His study is published in the International Journal of Primatology this month.

Assistant Professor Grueter said while chimpanzees were normally studied because they are genetically closest to humans, he chose snub-nosed moneys because their social groups are more similar to ours.

His work involves two species of snubnosed monkeys. One study investigates the black and white on the edge of the Himalayas where they live in forests of conifer and broad-leafed deciduous trees similar to those in Switzerland. This work, in the Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve in Yunnan, was near a village of the ethnic minority Lisu people.

He was there with a Masters student from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and several locals who helped the scientists locate the monkeys. Assistant Professor Grueter said he learned to speak Mandarin, but not the Lisu language.

His ongoing research involves the golden in central China where they live in the Shennongjia Nature Reserve and are fed three times a day. They tolerate close human contact.

The monkeys are listed as either critically endangered or endangered and the Chinese government is working to protect them as part of the nation’s natural heritage.

“The black and white snub-nosed moneys aren’t used to humans so we watched them from a distance through binoculars,” Assistant Professor Grueter said. “By taking scan samples and measuring the distances between individuals, we found they show levels of tolerance to monkeys not in their kinship groups. “ “When the young males turn three, they leave the natal group and form bachelor groups. Particularly in the mating season – autumn – there’s a lot of aggression between the bachelor males and the resident males.

“This study is the most detailed of this species’ social group because it lasted for almost two years. In current research we’re looking at the golden snub-nosed monkeys to get data about individual life histories and behavioural strategies.

“Already in this research we’ve found that males of different groups cooperate with each other against the bachelors, forming joint patrols.”

Assistant Professor Grueter received his PhD in biological anthropology from the University of Zurich. Since then he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and carried out a field study on the feeding ecology and competition in mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Virunga volcanoes region. This work was in collaboration with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

Assistant Professor Grueter said he first became interested in primates as a teenager after reading Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist and seeing the film. He said human society had evolved to a higher level that monkey societies because we form nuclear family units but also tolerate and interact with other family units, creating more integration and multigroup networks.

“What makes us distinct from other primates living in multi-level societies is that we not only tolerate other social units, but actively seek cooperation partners in our neighbourhood. This large-scale cooperation, coupled with cultural transmission, enabled us to conquer the globe,” he said.

“It’s interesting to learn about our own social evolution by studying species such as the snub-nosed monkeys, and provides even more reasons for preserving these fascinating primates which have become highly endangered in the wild as a result of destruction of their natural habitat.”

Published in UWA News , 15 October 2012


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