Primates living near humans show their ingenuity

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Chimpanzees crossing the road

Researchers at Oxford Brookes University have documented how and why different species of primate are changing their behaviours to survive near humans.

The research was published in a Special Issue of the International Journal of Primatology in April and guest-edited by Matthew McLennan (Oxford Brookes University, UK), Kimberley Hockings (Oxford Brookes and the Centre for Research in Anthropology, Portugal) and Noemi Spagnoletti (University of São Paulo, Brazil). Of the 16 articles, six were authored by staff and researchers from Oxford Brookes.

Across the globe, humans are transforming wildlife habitats and to survive in a fast-changing world, animals must change their behaviour to adjust to the new conditions.  

There‘s been a great deal of interest in how chimpanzees across Africa respond to human habitat modifications. We found they become more cohesive and quieter when entering agricultural areas to feed on human crops, including reports of crop feeding at night.

Dr Kimberley Hockings, Research Fellow, Oxford Brookes University

The world’s primates (the group of mammals including the monkeys, apes, lemurs and lorises) are under severe threat from human activities and because of this, it’s critical to understand how different primates respond to human-driven habitat change, and the extent to which ‘behavioural flexibility’ will help them survive in the face of ongoing changes. 

Contributions to the Special Issue illustrate how many primates – unless hunted or persecuted – show the behavioural flexibility needed to exploit these new ‘human-modified’ environments. 

Kimberley Hockings said: “Understanding primate behaviour in human-influenced habitats is crucial for conservation, but it’s also fascinating how primates take account of the risks of exploiting these habitats and respond accordingly. 

“For example, there‘s been a great deal of interest in how chimpanzees across Africa respond to human habitat modifications. We found they become more cohesive and quieter when entering agricultural areas to feed on human crops, including reports of crop feeding at night. Also, when crossing dangerous roads we find that the behaviour of dominant and bolder individuals varies according to the degree of risk, with adult males showing more protective behaviours towards vulnerable group members when risks from people and vehicles are highest”.

Adult male feeding on cornTo enable coexistence between people and primates in the long-term, not only do we need to understand how primates cope with changes, we must also understand how humans perceive and respond to the changing behaviour of primates. Matthew McLennan emphasises this point, stating: “Effective strategies to deter primates from eating farmers’ crops, for example, must address dynamic feeding changes in primates – which are often caused by human activities – as well as try to increase a primate’s perceived risk of exploiting croplands. 

“However, ‘troublesome’ primate behaviour is only one aspect of conflict, with human social drivers – such as cultural norms and expectations, social tensions, fear or lack of knowledge – often increasing the intensity of the conflict. 

“Conservation conflicts fundamentally revolve around different groups of people, whether these are local farmers, officials or conservation workers, who have different perspectives, agendas, and levels of empowerment. We need to understand and resolve the underlying social factors to understand how to promote coexistence with primates.”

The time for delegating pristine ‘natural’ environments as the sole solution for preserving primates in the ‘wild’ is unfortunately long gone. While protected key areas of natural habitat must remain a primary conservation strategy, the survival of many primate populations requires finding ways for them to live alongside people as well.

The full article introducing the Special Issue, which is entitled The Implications of Primate Behavioral Flexibility for Sustainable Human–Primate Coexistence in Anthropogenic Habitats is available on the International Journal of Primatology website.

Pictures: Wild chimpanzees crossing a newly-widened road at Bulindi, Uganda, photo by Jacqueline Rohen (top) and Male bearded capuchin monkey feeding on maize corn from a farmer’s field in Brazil, photo by Noemi Spagnoletti.