February 22, 2018  

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Southern Miss Anthropology Student Conducts Primate Study at Local Zoo

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Zookeepers and curators are always uncertain of how animals will coexist once new animals are introduced to the habitat.

A thesis project conducted by a Cassie Chandler, a University of Southern Mississippi anthropology master’s student, has sought to uncover the chemical and behavioral effects of the cohabitation of 17-year old male and 9-year old female Howler monkeys at the Hattiesburg Zoo. Chandler is in the final days of this five-week primate study.

“What we’re doing is a stress and behavioral study on these two monkeys as they come together and are introduced to each other,” said Chandler, a Texarkana, Texas native.

The male monkey was recently brought to Hattiesburg from Cleveland, Ohio to join his new mate. “We’re taking salivary cortisol levels from the monkeys to give us an indication of how stressed out they are,” said Chandler. “Hopefully we’ll be able to figure out what types of behavior indicate stress, so that will give the zoo an idea for future introductions on what type of behaviors indicate these monkeys or other types of animals are really stressed out and might need an intervention.”

Although the monkeys have gotten along well thus far, Zookeeper Rachel Johnson says animal introductions at the zoo are not always so peaceful. Johnson has first-hand knowledge of animal introductions, because she is responsible for training and establishing new behaviors at the zoo.

“We typically do introductions and there’s really no backing other than what we observe,” she said. “It’s really easy if they hit or bit or beat each other, but this is an interesting way to see if they stress each other out but still appear to get along.”

By stationing herself at the zoo all day, five times a week, Chandler documents any abusive behavior such as hitting, chasing, biting or fighting between the monkeys. Zookeepers use oral swabs twice a day to test the monkey’s salivary cortisol levels. Chandler said that stress activates the secretion of cortisol, which is known as “the stress hormone.”

This venture marks the first time that The University of Southern Mississippi and the Hattiesburg Zoo have collaborated on animal research, according to Johnson. Dr. Marie Danforth, one of Chandler’s professors at Southern Miss, thinks the research “really is going to be valuable in terms of helping us better understand the unique experiences of primates in a captive setting, which of course is very different from those in the wild.”

“Primatology is traditionally a part of anthropology since we can learn a lot about the human condition by studying our closest relatives,” Danforth continued. “Every introduction setting at a zoo has its unique circumstances, but if researchers and curators alike can find ways to identify the most stressful times, then they can hopefully begin to find ways to mitigate them, thereby paving the way for a successful cohabitation of the animals."

For Chandler, this study holds value for her future as an anthropologist. She traces her interest in primates and evolutional biology back to her undergraduate years at the University of Arkansas. “I’m just thrilled to be able to work with the primates and just being able to observe and learn everything I can, hopefully that’ll carry on to a Ph.D. or something like that,” Chandler said.