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Primate behavioural ecology

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. We have described the natural history of this black and white colobus, its diet, its social and mating system. In doing so, we try to answer questions such as: how does diet influence social relationships in colobus monkeys? What influences male and female dispersal decisions? In what type of group should individuals, males or females, prefer to live? What influences group membership? How does reproductive competition play out in this species?

Community-based conservation

By virtue of working with wild primates, I am also interested in conservation issues. Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary is a remarkable place, quite unique in West Africa. Indeed, this is a place where the monkeys are protected from hunting by traditional taboos, and where the communities are involved in the management of the Sanctuary. This makes it an interesting situation to examine questions of traditional conservation practices, and community-based conservation. Several of my students have been involved in censusing the colobus population, 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 three and four months of age. Researchers are able to recognize individuals based on variation in the shape of the band of hair above the eyebrows. 

The population of colobus at BFMS has grown consistently since the 1990s. It is probably the only growing population of Colobus vellerosus in its range in West Africa.  The species is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

A few of our findings so far:

  • Colobus vellerosus is highly folivorous, like the closely related Colobus guereza
  • Group size is quite variable, ranging from 5-7 individuals to the high thirties. 
  • There is not much competition for food between individuals, and although female dominance relationships can be detected, they are not often expressed. Feeding competition, when it occurs, happens over unripe fruit and flowers. 
  • Females sometimes reproduce in their natal group; however, female dispersal also occurs in our population.
  • Males systematically disperse from their natal group.
  • Male-male competition for access to females is intense. Male tenure is short in our population. Males who are resident in a bi-sexual group regularly face male incursions and 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.
  • Infants are regularly handled by non-mothers, as is often the case in colobines.
  • Infants are born pure white and transition to the adult black and white coat colour at different speeds: males and infants in multi-male groups attain the black and white coat earlier. 
My research at BFMS is NSERC funded.