Primate socioecology

My primary research interests revolve around social processes underlying group formation and group maintenance in primates. I am thus interested in investigating questions that relate to social relationships, mate choice, dispersal patterns, kinship and how these relate to each other. My earlier research was concerned with the effect of male reproductive competition on male-female relationships in mountain gorillas. Since 2000, I have led a research team working on Colobus vellerosus at the Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary in Central Ghana. At first, our goal has been to describe the natural history of this black and white colobus, its diet, its social and mating system, to try to answer questions such as: how does diet influence social relationships? What influences male and female dispersal decisions? In what type of group should individuals, males or females, prefer to live?

Community-based conservation

I am also interested in conservation issues. The nature of the site at BFMS, where the monkeys are protected from hunting by traditional taboos, and where the communities are involved in the management of the Sanctuary, makes it an interesting case study to examine questions of traditional conservation practices, and community-based conservation. Several of my students have thus been involved in censusing the colobus population at the site, and in tracking the changes in forest cover in the area over time.

Study species

The genus Colobus is found in Africa. C. vellerosus (the ursine colobus, or white-thighed colobus) is one of the five species of black and white colobus. It is an arboreal, black–bodied monkey with long, white, slightly tufted tail. The face is encircled by a broad white ruff. The infants are born pure white, and acquire the typical adult black and white coat between 3 and 4 months of age. Researchers are able to recognize individuals based on variation in the shape of the band of hair above the eyebrows.

A few of our findings so far:

  • Colobus vellerosus is highly folivorous, like the closely related Colobus guereza. Group size seems more variable in C. vellerosus however.
  • There is not much competition for food between individuals, and although female dominance relationships can be detected, they are not often expressed.
  • Male-male competition for access to females is intense. Male tenure is rather short in that population. Males who are resident in a bi-sexual group regularly face take-over attempts by extra-group males. When a take-over is successful, the new alpha male often kills the infants sired by the previous resident male.
  • Females sometimes reproduce in their natal group; however, female dispersal also occurs in our population.
  • Males systematically disperse from their natal group.
  • Infants are regularly handled by non-mothers, as is often the case in other colobines.
  • The population of colobus at BFMS has grown consistently since the 1990s.

My current research project on female counter-strategies to infanticide is NSERC-funded