I currently conduct fieldwork on wild geladas in the Simien Mountains National Park (SMNP) in Northern Ethiopia.
The gelada population in the Simien Mountains was originally studied by Robin Dunbar in the 1970s. In 2005, Drs. Jacinta Beehner and Thore Bergman began the first long-term project in the area, establishing the University of Michigan Gelada Project. Since then, the project has accumulated nearly a decade of long-term data on the demography, behavior, genetics, and physiology of adult geladas.
I joined the University of Gelada Research Project as a post-doc in late 2011. Coming off of a dissertation project focusing on adult female leaf monkeys, I was keenly interested in how adult trajectories were influenced by the developmental period. As such, I initiated a research program focusing on how social effects related to maternal rank and/or male takeovers might influence the pace of growth and development in young female geladas. As part of this research, I introduced the use of digital photogrammetry to capture morphometric measurements, and began intensive hormonal sampling of immature females from late infancy into adolescence. These morphometric and physiological measures are supplemented by routine collection of behavioral data via focal animal sampling, demographic data on births, maturations, and male takeovers, and genetic data to assess relatedness.
The Simien Mountains are an amazing place to conduct research. To date, we follow over 21 reproductive units embedded in bands of more than 200 individuals. The monkeys are terrestrial, so it is relatively easy to acquire detailed and accurate data on behavior. Similarly, fecal samples for the analysis of DNA and hormones are relatively easy to collect. Compared to studying arboreal leaf monkeys, this is a researcher’s dream scenario in terms of data collection.
Along with the great benefits, conducting research in the Simien Moutains presents its own set of unique challenges, particularly in relation to studying juveniles. First, following over 200 known individuals (>80 immatures) across 21 social units means that there are simply more faces to learn and recognize. Depending on the experience of the observer and the number of subjects involved in a research project, it may take anywhere from one to several months to learn most of the individuals. Second, although geladas are terrestrial, they live at extremely high altitudes. Our study site is located approximately 11,000 feet above sea level, and the air is very thin, so following monkeys is not as easy as it appears. Nevertheless, the Simien Mountain geladas have been the subjects of a plethora of past and on-going research projects, ranging from those related to sexual selection and communication, to those related to reproduction, development, and life history.