December 13, 2017

‘Hippies’ are not all human; nonhuman primates have their own flower children. The muriqui monkey boasts famously low rates of aggression, spending much of its time hugging and socializing, and displays no hierarchy among males and females. Yet, through the work of a Brazilian-American research group led by Karen Strier, professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the muriquis have emerged as a charismatic animal in need of help as habitat delines and populations dwindle.

In the effort to preserve the 2,300 muriquis in the wild, the research group asked an all-important question – What data do we need?

This question is especially important for studying multiple populations with differing habitat requirements, like northern and southern muriquis. Previous studies failed to maintain consistent methods, which produced results that were not comparable, so this team’s efforts are groundbreaking. “We think this may be one of the most comprehensive efforts to analyze the data monitoring needs for ensuring the survival of an endangered animal,” says Strier.

The study identifies genetic uniqueness and geographic importance as two key measurements that indicate whether a population can be used to enhance genetic diversity. Sex ratio and the proportion of females carrying babies allow scientists to understand population change. Methods should address feasibility, since many species inhabit locations impossible to reach, and be wary of fringe sites, as outlier populations are especially sensitive to climate changes.

Scientists are already applying this methodology to the northern and southern muriqui populations. The team is hopeful these methods can be used to study and save other endangered species.

The peaceful primates’ luck is looking up, as new muriqui reserves and abandoned farms make for hospitable environments to call home. “Seeing the resilience of nature makes me more determined than ever,” explains Strier. “We can’t reverse the past assaults to the planet, but we can do everything we can to stop them and give the animals and plants a chance to come back.”

Photo credit: Wisconsin National Primate Research Center

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