Professor’s passion helps protect endangered primates

November 7, 2000

The scene was a strangely beautiful scene, as 40 baboons passed single-file through the tall grass of the Kenyan savannah, followed by a lone human. Suddenly, the baboons went wild, screeching and crashing through the undergrowth past the human, who wondered what all the hullabaloo was all about.

And then Karen Strier saw the answer just yards away: a lion. She knew that a few leonine bounds were all that separated her from personal extinction.

“So I made a primatologically sound decision,” says Strier, now a professor of biological anthropology at UW–Madison. “I ran.”

Lucky for her – and for international primatology – the lion wasn’t hungry that day in 1980 when Strier was tasting her first fieldwork, in sight of Mount Kilimanjaro. She was participating as a Swarthmore junior in a baboon study sponsored by the University of Chicago and Cornell University, and it turned out to be terrific.

“All the elements that make me feel good – being outside, learning new things, watching the behavior of animals – were in alignment,” says Strier. A few years later, that alignment of joy drew her to another hemisphere and another primate species, with startling results.

In 1982, while a Harvard graduate student, Strier began a fieldwork stint in one place that has stretched to the present day. “The 18 years I’ve been studying these monkeys is longer than some of my students have been alive,” she says with a smile, something that often graces her face.

“Her monkeys” are the muriqui (pronounced moor-ih-kee), or woolly spider monkeys, which live in the shrinking coastal rainforest of Brazil. Strier’s personal and professional passion has been to keep the muriquis from getting pushed into extinction.

She and others have succeeded – so far. The population she studies has grown from 50 to 150, but even now the total muriqui count numbers only 1,000, an inch-wide ledge above the precipice of extinction.

“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, yet an epidemic or fire could wipe them all out,” says Strier. “It’s been said that if the Louvre burned, the art could never be replaced. But at the same time we’re letting entire species of primates be destroyed.”

The chilling prospect of a fellow primate being obliterated by modernity took a terrible turn into reality a few weeks ago. It was confirmed that the Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey in West Africa (named after the namer’s traveling companion) has officially gone extinct, the first primate species to do so in the past hundred years.

It had been named a year ago to a list of the top 25 endangered primates, on which the muriquis are included.

“It is so sad the muriquis are on the list, but that’s what motivates me to keep my research going,” says Strier.

These laid-back, golden-colored, 5-foot-long muriquis blow the chest-thumping stereotype of primates to smithereens.

They’re very mellow, for one thing. “Males don’t fight with each other over females or try to dominate females, because males aren’t larger than females,” says Strier.

And they love to hug: Muriquis – same sex or opposite sex – embrace for minutes at a time. “They give us a glimpse of what life could be like for us,” she says.

Strier has given the world more than a glimpse of the muriquis. She and her field-site colleagues have documented not only their unchimp-like mellowness, but also the hormonal basis for their high fertility, which has helped them climb up from their dangerously low numbers.

Strier’s findings have gained wide credence among primatologists and journalists alike. Muriquis have been featured in such magazines as Natural History, Discover and National Geographic. Her monkeys appear on the covers of other people’s textbooks and now on her own: “Primate Behavioral Ecology,” likely to become the field’s standard.

That Strier’s muriquis still have trees to swing from is due largely to the longtime owner of their 2,100-acre home, a local coffee grower who died earlier this year. He knew if he cleared that plot to make the world safe for more coffee plants, he’d snuff out more than trees. Luckily, the owner’s children share their father’s feelings toward the muriquis.

Strier’s own father, the late Murray Strier, told her that “those monkeys are so lucky to have you on their side.” But she believes that “the fate of the muriquis is in the hands of Brazilians. That’s why long ago I decided to train Brazilian students as fieldworkers, instead of just hiring people to collect data for me.”

She has trained about 30 Brazilian students over the past 18 years, and nearly all now hold academic posts. For that investment she received an award last year from the Brazilian Primatological Society.

For her graduate students and undergraduate majors, Strier tries hard to nurture their enthusiasm. “I tell them they should be so passionate about their discipline that at times they can’t sleep at night or that it’s what they think of first when they wake up,” she says. “Otherwise, they should keep looking for something they care about.”

For Strier, “the pursuit of science is exciting,” but she notes, “I also need a larger, greater cause – conservation. Our findings on the muriquis are more than just scientific discovery, they’re part of saving them.”

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