Bethany Watkins

Thesis title: Beneath the moon and under the sun: what the navigational strategies of Eulemur collaris can tell us about the evolution of higher cognition

Start year: 2021


Supervisor(s): Professor Giuseppe Donati, Dr Magdalena Svensson

Research topic

How an animal navigates can help us understand its relationship to the environment and infer levels of spatial cognition linked to its evolution. The coexistence of diurnal, nocturnal and cathemeral activity patterns amongst primates means they can provide an ideal model to study macroevolutionary trajectories of activity patterns. Surveying nocturnal and diurnal orientational ability allows analysis of the reciprocal effects of activity patterns, evolution and lineage diversification and can increase understanding of how movement and navigational strategies are affected by shifts in the time phase of their activity. This can further illuminate the adaptive role of activity patterns in primate evolution and provide evidence upon which we can discriminate between adaptive and non-adaptive evolutionary hypotheses.

The movement of arboreal species is strongly affected by forest fragmentation and degradation due to changes in canopy connectivity and loss of aerial pathways. Traditional methods of mapping forest fragmentation and connectivity using ground-based surveying often fail to describe the habitat’s intricate configuration. Using remote sensing technologies in a novel way I will use drones to monitor vegetation condition and produce a representation of forest structure and connectivity and use light weight and long-lasting accelerometers to analyse how energy balance adapts to changing forest conditions. These new tools will provide accurate and precise information that will aid the development of targeted conservation efforts to protect the remaining habitat, the species residing in them, and the ecosystem services they provide.

My research will focus on the connection between navigation, spatial cognition, cathemerality and the transition from a nocturnal to a diurnal lifestyle. I have two goals; (1) to understand the challenges of shifting from a nocturnal to a diurnal life during primate evolution using the unique model represented by cathemeral lemurs and their ability to navigate during daylight hours and at night, (2) to understand how lemur navigation strategies and activity respond to variation in forest structure and how in turn food availability is related to forest conditions. Using Eulemur collaris (collared brown lemur), a cathemeral lemur found in the threatened littoral forests of Southeast Madagascar, I will:

  • Investigate how activity patterns change over the 24-h cycle and the impact of periods of food abundance and food scarcity. 
  • Determine what the drivers of movement towards feeding goals are and how they change over the 24-h cycle and across changes in food resource availability. 
  • Model how diurnal and nocturnal navigational strategies and movement patterns respond to forest structure and its degradation.



Accelerometer, Cathemerality, Eulemur collaris, Forest structure, Remote sensing, Spatial cognition

General research interests

Cognition, Foraging ecology, Movement ecology, Remote sensing, Spatial cognition, Wildlife conservation

Academic school / department

School of Law and Social Sciences


  • Watkins, B (2021). The movement ecology of bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur meridionalis) in Madagascar. Canopy, 21(2) 10-13. 
  • Watkins, B (2021) “Routes matter: the effect of seasonality on lemur navigational strategies” Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) Conference 14th -16th April 2021 (Poster)
  • Watkins, B. (2019) “The effect of bait on butterfly abundance and diversity across disturbance, canopy and season, in a Neotropical Forest. University of the West of England Conference (Poster) 


Further details

Academic and professional training

  • MPhil/ PhD (2021 Candidate) Anthropology and Geography, Oxford Brookes University
  • MSc Primate Conservation (2020) Oxford Brookes University (Distinction) Dissertation: “Movement Ecology of Bamboo lemurs (Hapalemur meridionalis), in Mandena, southeast Madagascar. 
  • Surveying for Ecologists: Statistics for Ecologists and Field techniques for surveying mammals and reptiles (2019) Continued Education Department, Oxford University 2019
  • Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science (2018). University of the West of England (First Class)
  • Dissertation: The effect of bait on butterfly abundance and diversity across disturbance, canopy and season in a Neotropical Forest 
  • Tropical survey techniques and survey leadership Peruvian Amazon (2017), Crees Foundation 
  • Camera trapping workshop (2016), Stuart Edmunds, Shropshire Mammal Society 

Professional affiliations 

  1. American Society of Primatology (ASP)
  2. Primate Society of Great Britain (PSGB)
  3. Re:Wild
  4. International Primatological Society (IPS)
  5. British Ecological Society 
  6. Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB)
  7. Nocturnal Primate Research Group 
  8. Dr. Giuseppe Donati’s Research Lab 

Scholarship and prizes

Simon Bearder Prize (best dissertation) MSc Primate Conservation, (2020) Oxford Brookes University 

Other experience and professional activities

Research trip studying Night monkeys, Aotus nigriceps (April 2019).

I went to the Manu, Biosphere Reserve, Peru, South America as part of a team lead by Dr. Will Helenbrooke. Our aim was to understand the abundance and distribution of night monkeys (Aotus nigriceps) throughout a rainforest at different regeneration stages using microphones to detect calls at sunrise, sunset, twilight, dawn and dusk. 

Research trip Tsinjoarivo-Ambalaomby, Madagascar. University of the West of England (April 2018)

As part of my Tropical Field Work module for which I attained a grade of 70%, I organised and resourced a two-week field trip and developed several research projects including lemur behavioural surveys (Endangered diademed sifakas), pitfall traps, stream ecology, small mammal surveys. Hosted by SADABE, a local NGO, we partnered with master’s students in Antananarivo, and worked alongside local communities. 

Research-based internship at Crees Foundation, Manu, Biosphere Reserve, Peru (2016)

Over 6 months at a remote research station I carried out long-term data collection within the regenerating rainforest habitat. I lead volunteers on scientific surveys (butterfly and pitfall traps; macaw; Visual encounter surveys, mammal surveys) providing briefings on both health and safety and scientific purpose and method. After 4 months, I joined the staff as Butterfly Survey Coordinator and delivered a graphic design project re-designing and re-writing material used to train volunteers and staff on identification of key species.