The next grantee from our fall 2015 cycle is Kaitlin Wellens, PhD candidate from The George Washington University. She was awarded a grant for her project entitled “Maternal effects on juvenile chimpanzee social behavior and physiological stress.”
Mothers can have a tremendous impact on various aspects of their offspring’s early development, including behavior, stress responses, cognition, and even gene expression. While the importance of mothers on infant development has been studied in various species, less is known about how mothers influence their offspring post weaning. The question of maternal effects beyond infancy is particularly interesting when considering human and nonhuman primates, as both experience extended periods of development and thus close associations with mothers long after infancy. Juvenescence, the period between nutritional independence and sexual maturation, may be especially important, as it is hypothesized to be an influential period of social development in primates.
In order to address this gap, I am integrating extensive behavioral, physiological, and demographic data from the wild chimpanzees at Gombe National Park, Tanzania, to investigate how chimpanzee mothers influence their juvenile offspring’s social behavior and associated stress responses. Specifically, I am exploring how early maternal attachment, maternal rank, and maternal proximity relate to how frequently and with whom juveniles socialize with as well as the stress levels associated with these social interactions. By conducting this study in chimpanzees, one of our closest living relatives, I hope to shed an important comparative light on the evolution of an extended association with mothers and how this influences social development.