Primate Info Net Banner Wisconsin PRC Logo

Primatology as a Lifelong Interest

by Charles Southwick

Primatology for me has been a lifelong adventure, and an exciting multidisciplinary science, merging the fields of biology, anthropology, and psychology. My first contact with primates came in January of 1951, when I was a graduate student under John Emlen at the University of Wisconsin. Doc Emlen, as he was known to colleagues and students, and Nick Collias, a young faculty member, offered me the opportunity to study howler monkey populations in Panama. This would be the first field study of howlers on Barro Colorado since the classic work of C.R. Carpenter of Yale University in the 1930's, work which defined the goals and methods of naturalistic field studies of primates. Hence, my introduction to primatology came through the field of zoology.

The experience in Panama was a tremendous eye-opener for me as a young graduate student in zoology. My master's degree work had been with waterfowl in Manitoba, and my Ph.D. was in the field of rodent population ecology at the Wisconsin Arboretum -- I had entertained the ambition for many years of becoming a wildlife biologist. But the tropical experience in Panama, with a focus on primates, was so exciting, it changed my goals. The tropical environment of BCI was amazing to a midwesterner who had never been further south than Florida. Not only the howler population was exciting, but the tropical forest, the diversity of plant and animal life, and the opportunity to work in the field with Nick Collias, who was well on his way to becoming one of America's leading ornithologists, was the experience of a lifetime.

Following this adventure in Panama in 1951, I returned to the Zoology Department at Wisconsin, completed my Ph.D. in rodent population ecology, and went on to a teaching job at Hamilton College in upstate New York. I wanted to undertake postdoctoral work with rodent populations, and was especially attracted to the Bureau of Animal Population at Oxford University where a distinquished group of ecologists -- Charles Elton, Dennis Chitty, Mick Southern, Amyan MacLayden, John Brereton, and Peter Crowcroft -- were working. An NSF Postdoctoral made this possible in 1954 and 1955, providing another valuable experience in mammalian population ecology. The focus was again in rodent population dynamics, building on years of work at Oxford on commensal rodent populations in rural England. We also had the opportunity to work in Europe and North Africa, viewing animal populations, especially rodents, in many countries.

In late '55, my wife, Heather, and I returned from England to the Zoology Department of Ohio University, where I again took up a teaching obligation which included general biology, zoology, comparative anatomy, embryology, histology, and animal behavior. Those were the days of three or four lecture and lab courses per semester, with 20 to 25 class and lab contact hours per week. I retained a strong interest in field research with mammals, and was actively seeking an opportunity to combine my interests in primates with an equal interest in commensal animals.

India provided the answer -- the rhesus monkey, one of the best known primates in laboratory studies of behavioral and biomedical topics, was also known as an intensely commensal animal, living in villages, towns, cities, agricultural areas, and forests of India. I began to read as much as I could about the rhesus and was surprised to find that virtually no field studies of rhesus had been done in India. One or two papers by Angela Nolte of Germany and Ishar Prakesh of Rajasthan were all I could find, and they whetted my appetite for more.

In 1958 from the base of Ohio University, I applied for both a Fulbright Fellowship to India, and an NIH grant to support field research expenses. With great good luck, both came through, and Heather and I and our two-year old son were on our way to India in the fall of 1959 for what has become a 40-year association with field work on primates in India.

The major interruptions to our India work have been with other Asian countries -- our interest in primates has taken us to Nepal, China, Japan, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and many other countries -- focusing on macaques, but also studying langurs, leaf monkeys, and gaining exposure to gibbons and proboscis monkeys. Shorter field trips to Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America, have enriched our primatological experiences.

In addition to these many thrilling field opportunities, a prominent aspect of our primate experience has been through students, colleagues, and friendships. Many wonderful friends, here in the U. S. and abroad, have made primatology a lifelong adventure for us. We can't begin to list them all, but needless to say, primatology has broadened our collegial relations markedly.

We have been able to maintain our interests in other areas of biology and ecology, with research on other mammal species from mice to mule deer, from pike to bighorn sheep, and from global ecology to the conservation of biodiversity, but throughout the past 50 years, field-based primatology has been a distinctive highlight.

The need for primate field studies and primate conservation today are greater than ever. Support is not easy to find, but with the cooperative work of anthropologists, biologists, ecologists, psychologists, and conservationists, focusing their efforts on primatology, great things can be achieved. With the world changing so rapidly, and the lives of non-human primates endangered in so many places, we must find new ways of working together effectively and constructively.