A letter about the study of primates from the African jungle

By Matthew Henderson
Special to the Immokalee Bulletin
BUSINGIRO, Uganda — I didn’t always want to study primates. In fact, back when I was in elementary school I aspired to be a marine biologist. During high school my focus shifted toward tropical ecology, and when I first started university I wished to become a herpetologist. I realized that I had an overarching passion for our natural world, but needed time and experience to realize what I wanted to specialize in. Now, after working extensively in various environmental fields and through hands-on experiences with animals such as orangutans and gibbons, I can confidently say that I want to pursue and field in primatology.

While I have always enjoyed learning about primates, my passion for them truly developed when I first started volunteering at the Talkin’ Monkeys Project, a 401(c)(3) certified nonprofit primate sanctuary, while I was a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU). It was here that I met the most influential and passionate person of my life, Dr. Deborah Misotti (Dr. Deb for short).

While I immediately became fascinated with the mental and physical complexities of the primates she housed there, such as the gibbons, capuchins and spider monkeys, Dr. Deb’s inspirational stories and commitment for these incredible species drove me to work as hard as I could for what I cared about. Over the four years that I volunteered and interned at this sanctuary, I realized I developed a passion for this work that only increased the more I was there.

I decided that I wished to learn more about these species, so during my senior year at FGCU I designed an experiment to investigate how the order of the characteristic long distance vocalization of white-handed gibbons, the female great call, affected other gibbons’ subsequent responses to it. I then led a team of three colleagues to research this at the Talkin’ Monkeys Project, where I was able to observe these gibbons I had come to know so well in a whole new light. This project opened the door to what I could do within this field, and I was excited to learn more.

After graduating from FGCU with my Bachelor of Science degree in biology, I earned an internship at Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand (WFFT), for which I have Dr. Deb to thank again as she introduced me to the founder of this foundation at the International Primate Protection League (IPPL) conference. Here I was able to work with an incredible number of rescued wildlife, including gibbons and elephants, but my primary focus was helping to rehabilitate two juvenile orangutans for three months. Even with their nonstop biting and love of tormenting me, their curious and intelligent nature captivated me in ways I had never experienced before. I noticed how similar many of their behaviors were to the primates I have worked with before, and this experience reinforced my desire to continue down this path.

I was then fortunate enough to get a research assistant position working with a Ph.D. student from the University of York at Valleé des Singes in France. The project was to see how different hierarchal styles affected communication for both chimpanzees and bonobos. This experience of being able to continuously observe how these species interacted with each other in these environments was breathtaking, and I found myself constantly comparing certain behaviors with the many other species I have spent so much time with. I was also able to learn more about how to conduct noninvasive scientific studies on these animals. This experience provided me a glimpse into what my life could look like if I continued to pursue a career in this field — and I was eager to persist.

I then went straight from my field assistant situation into my current position as a Master of Science degree student in the Evolutionary and Comparative Psychology: Origins of the Mind program at the University of St. Andrews. Although I still have a few months until my graduation, I have enjoyed and greatly benefited from my attendance here. The various professors and programs available at this Scottish university taught me much about the inner workings of the primate mind, both human and nonhuman.

Currently I am studying the structure and importance of long-distance vocal communication of wild female chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda. I am stationed at the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) and I am learning much about the native species and the local cultures. This experience reflects much of what I learned at the Talkin’ Monkeys Project just a few years ago, and thinking back on all I have done since then, I owe everything to the wisdom and guidance of the amazing primatologist who helped me find my way to where I am now.

So, thank you Dr. Deb — thank you so much for everything you have done for me and all your other students that have been lucky enough to meet you. Your guidance and influence can be seen from across the world, and I hope that I can become as successful and impactful within this field as you have been.

The Immokalee Bulletin is published every Thursday.

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