26.03.2017 - 20:53
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Department of Primatology

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6
04103 Leipzig

phone: +49 (341) 3550 - 200
fax: +49 (341) 3550 - 299

Colleen Marie Gault

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Department of Primatology
Deutscher Platz 6
D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

phone: +49 341 3550 243
e-mail: colleen_gault@[>>> Please remove the brackets! <<<]eva.mpg.de 

Research Perspective

I am interested in understanding how the health of humans and other group-living mammals (plus a few cool birds) is an integration of the social, physiological, and environmental conditions in which an individual lives, as these relate to the evolution of that species and the life history of the individual.

Our social nature runs deep into our biology – a century of research that is ever increasing shows that interactions with our caregivers and peers at an early age have lifelong effects on our emotional processing and social personality. Throughout our lives, the nature of social connections we maintain has profound effects on our health. It may not be just the apple, but the daily sharing of the apple that really keeps the doctor away. Maintaining a few close relationships, rather than more friends than it is possible to keep in good contact or none at all, has been shown to improve outcome of illness ranging from the common cold to cancer. A few studies have begun to show that this physiological need for social support is one more thing we share with other primates. 

The pathway through which our social lives are connected to our physical well-being involves the interplay of the glucocorticoid ‘stress’ hormones and oxytocin, a peptide hormone which also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. These hormones can be measured with no disturbance to wild animals by collecting and analyzing feces or urine. I make use of fecal glucocorticoids in order to understand what stimuli provoke a stress response in individuals, and conversely, what social styles might buffer that response. 

While I am interested in the importance of the social and physical environment for all species, capuchin monkeys are presently the model for my research. Capuchins have complex social lives and cognition that is comparable with that of chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest living relatives. As part of the Lomas Barbudal Capuchin Monkey Project, I seek to bring more attention to this New World primate unique for its many traits convergent with those of humans, such as a high frequency of cooperation and coalition-formation, non-material culture, and a prolonged juvenile period. Further, by sharing the intriguing and yet familiar character of capuchins with the public, I hope to raise awareness of the need to treat these monkeys with respect, by both protecting their wild habitats, shared with so many other vulnerable species, and defending their rights in captivity.