Do wild green monkeys in Barbados still recognize leopards as a threat? This is a question a group of Centre College students had the opportunity to discover the answer to while studying abroad in Barbados with Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience Melissa Burns-Cusato.
“We come to the reserve with students each year to teach them how to conduct field research,” Burns-Cusato said. “Their research focuses on a troop of wild green monkeys, so they learn about primate behavior as they are learning about how to do field research.”
As part of the research aspect of the experience, the students work with Burns-Cusato on a project she started, which began as an investigation of the mechanisms that underlie anti-predator behavior in the green monkeys.
“These monkeys were actually brought from Africa to Barbados nearly 400 years ago, and the African population has a lot of predators,” she said. “In Barbados, there are no predators other than humans.”
Burns-Cusato explained how the African population had evolved a system of anti-predator behavior that allowed them to discriminate between different types of predators like leopards, snakes and eagles. When the monkeys see a predator, they elicit a different type of alarm call for each one that alerts others in the area to flee.
“The question we asked is, after 400 years with no experience with leopards, do the Barbados green monkeys still recognize a leopard or an image of a leopard as a potential threat,” she said.
Their research with the monkeys involves showing them images of leopards to see how they would respond. Throughout the course of the research study conducted over a few seasons, Burns-Cusato has seen that the green monkeys still recognize leopards as predators and will elicit the alarm call.
In addition to conducting research on Burns-Cusato’s project, the students were also offered the opportunity to design their own research experiments.
Madeleine Nagy ’19 conducted research with a group that chose to look at the association between mothering behavior and rank within the green monkey troop.
“We determined that there are some mothering behaviors that may be correlated with rank,” she said.
“My biggest takeaway was that field researchers are entirely dependent on the whims of the animals in their studies,” Nagy continued. “Field research is rewarding, and it is amazing to observe these animals in their natural habitat.”
While learning about the techniques of field research and about primate behavior, students also had the opportunity to learn about the culture of Barbados, as well.
“All the field trips were fascinating—from touring St. Nichols Abbey, to going on a sea turtle patrol, to swimming in Animal Flower Cave, the entire trip was educational and interesting,” said Nagy, whose trip to Barbados was her first study abroad experience at Centre.
“I hope that students will leave this course with a better understanding of the scientific method in general, and the challenges that are specifically associated with research in the field,” Burns-Cusato said. I also hope that they will develop a love for Barbados and the Caribbean culture, as well as inspiration to seek out other opportunities to get to know another culture as well as they did this one.”
by Kerry Steinhofer
July 12, 2017