Nicole Thompson is a PhD candidate at Columbia University. She was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our spring 2016 cycle for her project entitled “The benefits of social connections during development in blue monkeys in Kakamega, Kenya.”
We (primates) have strongly differentiated social relationships — not all social partners are created equal, and whom we associate with varies according to our sex, age, and environment. Although several decades of research have shown that the quality or quantity of relationships affects the survival and reproductive success (i.e. fitness) of modern-day humans, researchers are only beginning to understand the impact of relationships on fitness in non-human animals. How relationships influence fitness is perhaps the greatest current mystery, with evidence pointing to two major pathways: 1) avoiding predators and 2) either reducing exposure to stressors and/or increasing the ability to cope with them.
However relationships influence fitness, it is likely that an extended period of immaturity has evolved in primates, in part, to develop important relationships and the skills to maintain them. Primates, and humans above all, have particularly long juvenile periods relative to other mammals of similar size. Juveniles are rarely subjects of field studies, but because they are especially vulnerable to predators and environmental stressors, while they prepare behaviorally and physiologically for adulthood, the advantages they receive are exceptionally important to lifetime success.
In my research, I ask two main questions. What are the patterns, or strategies, of social relationships during development? How do those patterns benefit individuals in the short-term, in ways that are likely to lead to long-term fitness? I research these questions in blue monkeys in the Kakamega Forest, Kenya, who, like humans, are gregarious and have a particularly long juvenile period, even among primates. To answer these questions I examine both behavioral and hormonal data. Answers will lend insight into both how complex, differentiated relationships and prolonged juvenility evolved in primates.