Student Spotlight: Katarina Evans' Discovery May Help Save Old World Monkeys

Katarina Evans in the field (Photo courtesy of Evans)

By Lida Tunesi

For an aspiring primatologist facing COVID-related travel restrictions, Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Katarina Evans (Anthropology) is having a surprisingly productive spring. She recently published her first, first-authored journal article and is making progress on her dissertation research.

In a paper in the International Journal of Primatology, Evans and three co-authors, including Professor Jessica Rothman (GC/Hunter, Anthropology) describe some findings about the diets of Old World monkeys that may impact conservation efforts. They found that the usual way of measuring protein in the Old World monkeys’ leafy foods overestimates the amount that the primates can actually digest. At least, this is the case for colobine monkeys living in Kibale National Park in Uganda. 

It’s common for scientists to predict primate biomass, or the weight of monkeys living in one square kilometer, by looking at the protein content of the leaves the primates eat. But for the colobines in Kibale, the amount of traditionally-measured “crude protein” in the leaves was much higher than the amount the monkeys actually take in. This is because things like tannins and fiber can make proteins harder to digest, Evans explained. To remedy this, Evans and her co-authors suggest using “available protein,” a metric that takes these factors into account.

But even with the new measurement, Evans and co-authors found that they couldn’t predict colobine biomass just by looking at protein. Instead, scientists should start taking a closer look at fiber and other nutrients, which might play a bigger role in biomass than previously thought, they wrote.

“Our hope is that more primate ecologists will use available protein, rather than crude protein, in future studies,” Evans said. “Our findings have implications for conservation because they provide us with greater insight into the nutritional needs of these monkeys.” For instance, knowing which tree species and forest areas the monkeys need to survive can help determine what to protect from logging operations.

As a physical anthropology student, Evans is part of the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology, or NYCEP, which brings together resources from the American Museum of Natural History, Columbia University, and others, along with CUNY. It was through an NYCEP internship that Evans began working with Professor Rothman  on this new study.

“NYCEP has allowed me to expand my academic network and gain experience with various scientists and labs across several CUNY colleges and other institutions,” Evans said. “Through this internship I’ve also gained experience in nutritional biochemistry wet lab techniques.”

Though Evans didn’t collect the sample leaves used in this study, she did travel to Kibale for different research, on the noises that mangabey monkeys make when feeding or finding different foods.

“Being in the field is wonderful,” Evans said. “Seeing primates and other animals in the wild is such a special and profound experience, and walking through the Kibale forest watching monkeys felt magical. I also formed friendships that I will carry with me throughout my life.”

Evans’ dissertation will analyze the characteristics that lead to the intense bonds between male and female hamadryas baboons, like herding, neck-biting, responses to such aggression, and physical traits like big, fluffy manes and bright red skin. For this work, she visited Awash National Park in Ethiopia, where she observed the baboons’ social lives and behavior up close.

Between her observations from Awash and videos of wild baboons collected by her Ph.D. adviser, Professor Larissa Swedell (GC/Queens; Anthropology, Biology, Psychology/Anthropology), Evans said has had enough material and data to stay busy during the pandemic. She had planned on traveling to the Netherlands to visit captive hamadryas baboons in zoos but will now be staying closer to home, visiting zoos around the U.S. in the coming weeks.

“Overall,” Evans said, “my experience doing research as a GC student has been invaluable and formative as I grow into becoming the scientist I would like to be.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: APR 26, 2021

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