UCL Anthropology


@Jutta Hof


Primate Socioecology and Conservation

Evolutionary Anthropology C. Fryns/GMERC

Darwinian theory is a powerful tool that allows us to understand the evolution of primate societies. Like all animals, primates are faced with the problems of how to survive, breed and rear offspring. However, primate behaviour is particularly complex. Consequently, the research programmes coordinated by Alex Piel and Alecia Carter ask how primates organise their social and reproductive strategies to adapt to specific environmental conditions and how these challenges are reflected in their cognitive abilities. Largely based on field studies of monkeys and apes in southern (Namibia) and eastern (Tanzania) Africa, this approach also aims to create awareness for the plight of our closest living relatives, as their existence on this planet is increasingly endangered by human activity. Field research is therefore not only understood as an academic exercise, but includes collaboration with governments, NGOs and local communities to conserve primate habitats.

Alex Piel is the co-director of the GMERC Project. His current research focuses on a diverse guild of primates that live in the woodland mosaic habitat of the Issa Valley, in western Tanzania - a landscape that closely resembles paleoecological reconstructions of early hominin environments, especially of Ardipithecus. At Issa, research focuses on three sympatric species: eastern chimpanzees, yellow baboons, and red-tailed monkeys. Primary topics include ranging, dietary, and social behaviour of each species, and also how these primates compete for scarce food and space resources. Like nearly everywhere primates survive, western Tanzania experiences competition between human and non-human primates. Primate, and particularly chimpanzee, habitat is under threat from agriculture, settlement expansion, and even herding. Alex works to integrate his research into conservation needs. For example, how large an area requires protection to ensure chimpanzee population viability? How do chimpanzees use preferred logging species? And how can we identify conservation priorities that consider both human and non-human primate needs? For more on his work, see the Greater Mahale Ecosystem Research and Conservation website and follow the project on Twitter.

Alecia Carter is a co-director of the Tsaobis Baboon Project in Namibia. Her current research aims to understand key mechanisms in the evolution of culture by quantifying traits that predict individuals’ use of social information. Carter uses a combination of observational, experimental, and comparative approaches to address this aim. In addition to studying the spread of cultural behaviours in baboons, Carter is currently collaborating with a philosopher to search for novel evidence of self-awareness in socially-aware species. Alecia Carter is likewise involved in promoting equality and collegiality in academia. Together with colleagues, she created and now manages a website to collate and curate research on diversity in academia. The site provides a number of evidence-based, actionable recommendations, in addition to more general advice, to encourage more equal participation of women during academic events.

Selected Publications