Erin Vogel Intrigues Audience at the American Museum of Natural History

The crowd at Erin Vogel’s SciCafe lecture at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo: ©AMNH/M. Shanley

On June 6th, Dr. Erin Vogel gave a lecture titled “Primate Palate: Orangutans, Obesity, and Human Evolution” as part of a collaboration between the American Museum of Natural History and The Leakey Foundation. During her talk at the fun SciCafe, Dr. Vogel shared information on her research focusing on wild orangutans from the tropical forests of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia on the island of Borneo, illuminating how the diet, behavior, and metabolism of our primate cousins provide insights on human health conditions.

Erin Vogel on stage at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo: ©AMNH/M. Shanley

The event was filled with people curious about orangutans and what we can learn from them.

Dr. Erin Vogel holds an orangutan skull during her Leakey Foundation school outreach visit at PS 086 in the Bronx, New York.

Before the SciCafe, Dr. Vogel also went to Public School 86 (PS086) with the Leakey Foundation to give a talk to 200 6th grade students about her research on orangutans and also about orangutans conservation. She also gave a presentation to high schools students at the AMNH Teen SciCafe. Overall, an excellent day of education, science outreach, and exciting interactions!

You can learn more about Dr. Vogel and her work on her website CORE Borneo..

Listen to the lecture on AMNH’s “Science at AMNH Podcast

The SciCafe series is proudly sponsored by Judy and Josh Weston.

Primates in Peril

Primates are fascinating. They are intelligent, live in complex societies, and are a vital part of the ecosystem. Lemurs, lorises, galagos, tarsiers, monkeys, and apes are our closest biological relatives, and just like them, humans are also primates. However, while the human population has spread to all corners of the earth, many of our closest relatives are under serious threat.

An international team of leading primate researchers, including several Leakey Foundation grantees, has analyzed and evaluated the situation of many endangered non-human primate species in Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a review article published on June 15. In their study, the researchers investigated the influence of human activities on wild primate populations. The destruction of natural forests and their conversion into agricultural land threatens many species who thereby lose their habitat. However, hunting and the bushmeat trade also lead to a massive and rapid decline of many populations. A simulation of agricultural land expansion by the end of the century showed a decline of up to 78 percent in the distribution areas of many primate species. In their study, the scientists ask for immediate measures to protect the endangered primate species and supply recommendations for the long-term conservation of primates and to avert primate extinction (Peer Journal 2018).

A Coquerel’s sifaka, Madagascar. Photo © Rich Lindie / Adobe Stock,

Primates live in tropical and subtropical areas and are mainly found in regions of Africa, South America, Madagascar, and Asia. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently lists 439 species. 65 percent (286) of these are located in the four countries of Brazil, Indonesia, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Around 60 percent of them are threatened by extinction. Particularly dire is the situation in Indonesia and Madagascar, where 90 percent of primate population declined and more than three-quarters of species are endangered.

In a comprehensive literature review, the authors of the study analyzed the major threat factors for primates in four countries. In Brazil, Madagascar, and Indonesia the increasing destruction of their habitats is a stressor for the animals. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the bushmeat trade is the biggest threat. In addition, primates are sold illegally as pets or used in traditional medicine. Poverty, the lack of education, food insecurity, political instability, and corruption further encourage the depletion of natural resources in the countries concerned and make it more difficult to protect the animals.

Slash and burn deforestation in the region west of Manantenina, Madagascar. Photo by Diorit – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“The destruction of the natural environment through deforestation, the expansion of agricultural land and infrastructure development to transport goods has become a major problem,” says Christian Roos, a scientist in the Primate Genetics Laboratory at the DPZ and co-author of the study. “The main contributors of this development are the industrial nations. There is a high demand for raw materials such as soy, palm oil, rubber, hardwood or fossil fuel. The four primate-rich countries cover 50 percent of these export goods to China, India, the US and Europe.”

The scientists combined data from the United Nations and World Bank databases to simulate the estimated spread of agricultural land in the four countries until the turn of the century. Assuming a worst-case scenario, the researchers were able to predict a decline in the geographical range of the primate populations. Accordingly, by the year 2100, 78 percent of the primate habitats in Brazil, 72 percent in Indonesia, 62 percent in Madagascar, and 32 percent in the Congo could have disappeared. At the same time, the authors investigated the size and distribution of protected areas. Their estimates show that Brazil and Madagascar have around 38 percent, Indonesia 17 percent, and The Democratic Republic of Congo 14 percent of primate habitats in protected areas. The majority of the distribution areas are without protection status, and primates are therefore under threat.

The authors call for the extension of protected areas, the reforestation of forests, and the planting of corridors as important measures to preserve primate populations. In addition, the local population must be made aware of the precarious situation. Governments, scientists, conservation organizations, and economists need to work together to promote sustainable, organic farming while preserving traditional lifestyles. In addition, the governments of the countries concerned should work harder to combat illegal hunting, forest destruction and primate trade.

“Primates are like canaries in a coal mine,” says Christian Roos. “They are invaluable for tropical biodiversity as they are vital for the regeneration of forests and stable ecosystems. Their extinction will serve as an alarm bell for humans and an indication that these habitats will become unusable in the long run.”

This article is from materials provided by the German Primate Research Center through Eurekalert.

Estrada A, Garber PA, Mittermeier RA, Wich S, Gouveia S, Dobrovolski R, Nekaris KAI, Nijman V, Rylands AB, Maisels F, Williamson EA, Bicca-Marques J, Fuentes A, Jerusalinsky L, Johnson S, Rodrigues de Melo F, Oliveira L, Schwitzer C, Roos C, Cheyne SM, Martins Kierulff MC, Raharivololona B, Talebi M, Ratsimbazafy J, Supriatna J, Boonratana R, Wedana M, Setiawan A. (2018) Primates in peril: the significance of Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for global primate conservation. PeerJ 6:e4869

Grantee Spotlight: Meagan Vakiener

Meagan Vakiener was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our fall 2017 for her project entitled “Weaned age in gorillas using trace element distributions in teeth.” She is a PhD candidate at George Washington University. 

Meagan Vakiener

Humans wean infants earlier than expected based on relationships established using non-human primate comparative models. An early age at weaning is an important contributor to a shorter inter-birth interval and increased fertility, providing a competitive edge in reproductive success and population growth.

However, research on the evolutionary cause of such an adaptive shift is critically limited by methodological constraints in obtaining direct evidence of weaning from the fossil record. This research seeks to improve the interpretation of the chemical signature preserved in dental tissues by analyzing teeth from a well-documented population of wild mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei).

The proposed research offers the rare opportunity to establish a well-tested foundation for applying this approach to the human fossil record and to clarify the socio-ecological correlates of weaning variation in this species. A better understanding of what drives intraspecific weaning variation in a great ape species provides a means by which to better understand the evolution of accelerated weaning in humans. The broader impacts of this research include: 1) teaching and mentorship to under-represented groups in science both in the United States and in Rwanda; 2) international and inter-departmental collaborations necessary for the multi-disciplinary nature of this proposal; 3) a commitment to science education including local outreach to educate children about gorilla skeletal biology in Rwanda and the United States through collaborations with the Education Department of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and the Karisoke Research Center; and 4) revealing insights into the effects of anthropogenic disturbance on an endangered great ape species.


This proposed research seeks to test a developing method for reconstructing the timing of early-life dietary transitions from the distribution of calcium-normalized strontium and barium intensities in teeth, and to investigate weaning age variation within a single well-documented wild population of Virunga mountain gorillas from Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

The chemical signature of mountain gorilla food resources and captive gorilla breast milk will be characterized in order to provide a context for interpreting variation in enamel and dentine barium and strontium intensities. Estimated weaned age from trace element analysis will then be compared to longitudinal records on wild mountain gorilla diet and suckling.

The following questions will be addressed: 1) How well do trace element distributions in teeth correspond to behavioral observations of suckling and other metrics for determining weaning age (e.g., interbirth interval)? 2) How does the weaning chemical signature vary within a wild mountain gorilla population? The ability to partner behavioral and chemical data from individuals in this population represents a unique opportunity to test an emerging methodology for recovering relatively high-resolution evidence of weaning in the human fossil record.

This research is part of the Mountain Gorilla Skeletal Project (MGSP) in Rwanda, in collaboration with national parks authorities, the Karisoke Research Center, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and the NYU College of Dentistry.

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Origin Stories Podcast Episode Wins Prix Marulić

The Leakey Foundation’s Origin Stories podcast has won the Prix Marulić International Audio Festival in the documentary category for “What They Left Behind” by producer Neil Sandell and editor Julia Barton.

“What They Left Behind” is an audio documentary about renowned French prehistorian Jean Clottes who has spent decades studying the famous painted caves of Ice Age Europe, and other prehistoric art around the world. Clottes’ work has challenged popular assumptions about prehistoric art and how it evolved.

Jean Clottes standing in the reconstructed replica of Chauvet Cave.

Sandell’s documentary explores the search for the meanings behind prehistoric art, and what it reveals about the people who made it.

Sandell said, “I set out to make a piece that conjured a sense of wonder. I wanted the piece to work on two levels: as explanatory journalism and as a personal portrait. Jean Clottes has led a fascinating life, and I wanted the listener to connect with him emotionally.”

Jean Clottes and Neil Sandell outside of the entrance to Niaux Cave.

“This documentary is an example of sincere and pure simplicity, giving an impression of humility towards the subject and the ancient cave art,” said Petar Vujačić, jury coordinator of the 22nd annual Prix Marulić, “Minute details within the flow of the narrative create a picture of a man and depict this out-of-time art with a force of conviction which has left us breathless.”

Sandell was honored at the award ceremony which took place in Hvar, Croatia on May 24. “The winning programs in radio documentary competitions tend to be about heavy subjects – violence and injustice, loss and struggle and human frailty.” said Sandell, “These programs are important to make and I’ve made a few myself. A quiet program like ‘What They Left Behind’ usually doesn’t get noticed. I am thrilled that the Prix Marulić jury rewarded a quiet story, a science story, a story whose secret sauce is a sense of wonder.”

In honor of the award, The Leakey Foundation has rereleased the episode. You can listen on the player below and subscribe to Origin Stories on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Stitcher, RadioPublic, or via your favorite podcast app.

About Neil Sandell:

Neil Sandell is an award-winning Canadian radio producer.

In 2014 he moved to Nice, France, following a long career at the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, including five years as senior producer of the first-person documentary program, Outfront. In 2011, he was named the Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy, Canada’s most prestigious journalism fellowship. He has taught workshops at the Third Coast Audio Festival, and the Hearsay International Audio Festival in Kilfinane, Ireland. In 2015 he was a jury president at Prix Italia.

About Julia Barton:

Julia Barton is the editor of  The Leakey Foundation’s Origin Stories podcast and of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, and Empire on Blood for Panoply Media. She was formerly a senior editor at PRI’s The World, heading up a project called “Across Women’s Lives.” Her reporting has appeared on Radiolab, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, and 99% Invisible, among other programs.

Barton was a Knight Fellow in International Journalism (2002–Russia and Ukraine) and recipient of an International Reporting Project Fellowship (2000–Ukraine).

About Origin Stories: Origin Stories is The Leakey Foundation’s podcast about how we became human. This award-winning show combines science and narrative to explore our human story and explain why we are the way we are.

The third season is currently in production and will be released in August 2018.

Introducing Our Spring 2018 Baldwin Fellows

Franklin Mosher Baldwin Memorial Fellowships are awarded to graduate students who are from developing countries and would like to pursue training and/or education abroad. In providing this opportunity, The Leakey Foundation hopes to equip these scholars with the knowledge and experience necessary to assume leadership positions in their home countries where there often exist extraordinary resources in the field of prehistory.

The Baldwin Fellowship was established in 1978, and its track record speaks for itself. Baldwin Fellows such as Zeresenay Alemseged, Berhane Asfew, Mzalendo Kibunjia, Jackson Njau, Agazi Negash, Emma Mbua and Fredrick Manthi (to name only a few) have gone on to productive and influential careers in the fields of paleoanthropology and primatology.

Here are the four returning Baldwin Fellows for our spring 2018 cycle:

Tengenu Gossa Aredo (Ethiopia)

Mr. Aredo has a Master’s degree in archaeology from Addis Ababa University. He is currently enrolled in a PhD program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the supervision of Erella Hovers. He has been working at the early Acheulian site of Melka Wakena in Ethiopia in an attempt to understand the behavioral patterns of the toolmakers there. After completion of his studies, he plans to return to Ethiopia to either teach in a university or work with the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage to promote and conserve Ethiopia’s archaeological heritage.

Alexander Titan Kabelindde (Tanzania)

Mr. Kabelindde has been accepted in the PhD program in archaeology at University College of London. He has been working at Olduvai Gorge under the supervision of his advisors, Ignacio de la Torre and Jackson Njau. At Olduvai, he hopes to shed light on the technological behavior of Homo erectus not only by participating in new fieldwork but also by analyzing the lithic assemblages from Beds III/IV. Currently, Mr. Kabelindde is receiving training in lithic analysis and is preparing for a formal examination in May at the Institute of Archaeology. Upon completion of his degree, he plans to continue research in Tanzania.

Himani Nautiyal

Himani Nautiyal (India)

 Ms. Nautiyal is enrolled in a PhD program at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute under the supervision of Michael Huffman. Her fieldwork is with a little-studied species of Central Himalayan langurs living in a remote, high altitude Himalayan valley in northern India. Her focus is on male reproductive strategies and on the importance of female mate choice in influencing male reproductive success. Her fieldwork this past year was highly successful due to her work in habituating the study troop. She has gained experience in running the field site and coordinating research and observations by the local field assistants and international volunteers. She was awarded a National Geographic Young Explorer Grant in 2016. She is funded again this year by the James and Gloria Stewart Foundation.

Negin Valizadegan

Negin Valizadegan (Iran)

Ms. Valizadegan is a third-year doctoral student in biological anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her advisor is Jessica Brinkworth. The focus of Ms. Valizadegan’s research is the evolution of immune systems and microbe-host interactions in primates. She is interested in the interactions between beneficial microbes and their hosts to see how these interactions have led to adaptations between primates and their microbiota. Her goal is to become a university professor in Iran. She is also being funded again by the James and Gloria Stewart Foundation.

New Baldwin Fellowships for 2018

We had a record number of new applicants this year. We were able to fund seven thanks to the generosity of the James and Gloria Stewart Foundation, which is supporting two Baldwin Fellows, as well as Kelly Stewart and Sandy Harcourt, who funded one new Fellow.

Rosemary Anne Blersch

Rosemary Anne Blersch (South Africa)

Ms. Blersch is a first year PhD student from University of South Africa. She is studying animal behavior and evolution at Lethbridge University, Canada.  She is looking at the relationship between primate health and sociality in vervet monkeys in the context of severe environmental stressors. With a large multidisciplinary research group, the Louise Barrett/Peter Henzi lab at Lethbridge is an ideal environment for investigating infectious disease/parasite transmission in wild vervet populations. She has completed a pilot study in South Africa in which she was able to identify vervet monkey’s primary gastrointestinal parasites. As there is not an evolutionary anthropology curriculum in South Africa, she plans to return to her home country to establish biological anthropology as an academic discipline to provide opportunities for South African students to work in this field. She is a recipient of funding from the James and Gloria Stewart Foundation.

Fikremariam Sisay Kassa (Ethiopia)

Mr. Kassa is pursuing a master’s degree in paleoanthropology from Addis Ababa University. He is enrolled at University of Calgary under the supervision of Susanne Cote where he hopes to continue his studies in their PhD program. His research is focused on ecomorphological characterizations of Plio-Pleistocene cercopithecids in association with hominin paleoecology from East Africa. He has done fieldwork at Omo Kibish with both Frank Brown and John Fleagle. He was also awarded a PAST scholarship to attend the Koobi Fora Field School. Calgary will provide the multidisciplinary tools to measure craniodental morphology, dental microwear and analyze stable carbon isotopes. He wants to return to Ethiopia to establish his own paleoanthropological research projects. He hopes to teach and conduct research at Addis Ababa University as well.

Elihuruma Wilson Kimaro (Tanzania)

Mr. Kimaro is a first-year student in the PhD program at the University of Minnesota. His advisor is Michael Wilson. Mr. Kimarao is also an employee of the Tanzania National Park at Gombe. His commitment to conservation of the Gombe chimpanzees has led him to realize that he needed advanced training in research skills to address the problems he hopes to solve. Minnesota’s Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Program will provide these skills as well as a grounding in disease ecology, ecological phylogenetic modeling approaches, and database management of hormonal stress responses. After obtaining his doctoral degree, he intends to return to work as a conservationist with the Tanzania National Parks Authority.

Rosa Matsileng Moll (South Africa)

Ms. Moll is a PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand Archaeology Department. She is studying Early Stone Age lithic technology under the supervision of Ignacio de la Torre at University College London (UCL). The focus of her research is the analysis of Sterkfontein early Acheulean assemblages using an in-depth technological reduction strategy method. UCL will also provide ESA materials from a number of eastern and southern Africa sites, which will give her an invaluable means to evaluate differences in technological strategies and behaviors across sites. She wants to return to South Africa to supervise and train students in archaeological research and to provide lectures to local communities to inform them about southern Africa’s rich archaeological heritage.

Ipyana Francis Mwakyoma

Ipyana Francis Mwakyoma (Tanzania)

Mr. Mwakyoma has a BA degree in archaeology from University of Dar es Salaam. He has been accepted into the Master’s Degree Program at Colorado State University, supervised by Michael Pante. He intends to study zooarchaeology with emphasis on understanding hominin feeding behavior and ecology.  He will be collecting high resolution 3D scanning data from the Zinjanthropus fossil assemblage to assess possible tooth and cut marks on the fossil surfaces. He has extensive experience working as a member of Olduvai Geochronology and Archaeology Project. He plans to return to Tanzania to work at The Mirror International Research Institute as a paleoanthropology researcher and to teach paleo sciences at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Sharmi Sen

Sharmi Sen (India)

Ms. Sen has a BS/MS degree in biological sciences from the Indian Institute of Science Education and is in the Pre-Doctoral Program in Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Her advisor is Jacinta Beehner. Her research focuses on intraspecific variation in reproductive tactics in male Geladas using long term data gathered over 12 years by Dr. Beehner. She will also conduct DNA for paternity analysis for all the individuals in her study and will also conduct targeted behavioral data sampling on male-female relationships. She intends to return to India to teach and to research Indian primates. Kelly Stewart and Sandy Harcourt funded this applicant.

Chalachew Mesfin Seyoum

Chalachew Mesfin Seyoum (Ethiopia)Mr. Seyoum is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University. His advisor is Kaye Reed. He has conducted multiple research projects in Ethiopia. His research focuses on the dietary niche expansion of early hominins and their paleoenvironment. Other research interests include the evolution of early Homo, isotope geochemistry, habitat differences in the Plio-Pleistocene hominins, primate evolution, and osteology. Currently, he is working with the Ledi Geraru Research Project in Ethiopia, where he discovered a partial lower jaw of the oldest Homo specimen, dated 2.8 Ma.