In an office cluttered with monkey memorabilia —stuffed animals, posters and photos, books galore —Dr. Karen Strier smiled as she spoke about the species she holds close to her heart: the muriqui monkeys.
Strier, the UW-Madison Vilas Research Professor and Irven DeVore Professor of Anthropology, however, has a new accomplishment to add to her list. Last August, she was chosen to be the president of the International Primatological Society.
As the newly elected president for the professional society for those who study primates, Strier will serve as the spokesperson for the society for the next four years. This is the first time a UW professor will lead the society.
Although, theoretically, Strier focuses on the behavioral ecology of primates with a contribution to conservation efforts, Strier has studied the muriqui monkeys since 1982. She currently supervises one of the largest-running field projects on primates. Her field site is in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest in southeastern Brazil.
“My research really was critical in bringing them, and their behavior, to the forefront of science,” Strier said. When she began studying the muriquis, not much was known about them.
An endangered species that can’t even be found in zoos, the muriquis are, according to Strier, one of the world’s most peaceful primates. They live in egalitarian societies without pecking orders or hierarchies; the males and females are the same size. Males can’t intimidate or harass females, and females in these societies have a lot of freedom compared to other primate societies, Strier explained. Strier explained the muriquis have such a gentle lifestyle that they often hug each other. Her work studying these peaceful animals has also been widely regarded for its conservation efforts.
“Everything I learned about them would have potential use for conservation too and that was a really important thing to me— to do science that makes a difference,” Strier said.
That’s just what happened. The muriquis only live in the one little forest Strier studies. The forest is roughly 2,500 acres. Beginning her work, 50 muriquis were in existence. Now, more than 350 are there, and the population continues to grow.
“My project is part of the reason why it has become a nature reserve,” Strier added, emphasizing her conservation efforts while studying the muriquis.
Located about 200-300 km away from large cities, the forest is surrounded by farmlands and pastures— a rural community. Due to deforestation, the original forest has become fragmented, and each fragment is individually owned. The muriquis, Strier said, lost almost all of their habitat due to this deforestation and now exist in one of the pockets of forest left behind, about 5 percent of the original forest.
The original landowner of the muriquis’ home and forest fragment was passionate about conservation, and he vowed to help protect the monkeys. However, when he passed away in 2000, Strier feared his family would partition the land off. They did just the opposite.
“Instead they got together and turned it into a federally protected nature reserve,” Strier said. She explained they still own the land but that they’ve committed forever to protecting it. “It was like the muriquis said ‘woo-hoo!’ ... and the [population] just continued growing.”
Although Strier and her team know all the monkeys by name, she iterated her use of non-invasive approaches to studying the muriqui monkeys throughout her career. Some of her past research included a study in which she teamed up with Toni Ziegler, a distinguished scientist and endocrinologist at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, to study reproductive patterns and cycles through muriqui feces. She is now in another collaboration studying primate feces again with the University of Texas at Austin and laboratories in Brazil, but this time to extract DNA.
As Strier continued to flip through photos of muriqui monkeys on her computer, taken mostly from stationary trail cameras, she smiled some more, concluding “I love these guys.”