Shasta Webb is a PhD Candidate at the University of Calgary. She received a Leakey Foundation grant in 2020 for her project entitled “Understanding digestive flexibility through gut microbiome changes at short timescales.”
Q: When did you first realize you were interested in science? Did you like science as a child, or did you come to it later?
While growing up, I was determined to be a novelist. Through the end of high school, I was convinced that the creative writing path was for me. In my first year of my bachelor’s program at Macalester College, however, I was introduced to anthropology through a course I had signed up for on a whim. I was immediately captivated by the scientific approach to understanding human evolution. In that course, we were not only tasked with memorizing key events in human evolution, but also encouraged to ask “why” certain overarching ideas in human evolution prevailed. After that course, I immediately committed to an anthropology major, and have been enticed by scientific thinking and anthropological approaches ever since.
Q: How did you become interested in your current field?
As my interest in and understanding of anthropology grew, I envisioned myself in several subfields within the broader discipline. I took an ethnographic methods course and was convinced I wanted to be a sociocultural anthropologist. I took an archaeology course and could see myself as professional archaeologist. But then I took a primatology course and learned how studying primates enabled researchers to ask critical questions–both immensely detailed and broadly theoretical–in non-human contexts.
I was initially drawn to human-non-human primate interaction work–and am still very interested in this topic–but my current research focuses more on primate flexibility in dynamic environments.
Q: How did you feel when you found out you had been awarded a Leakey Foundation grant?
I was in disbelief! I had been applying to grants all through 2018 and 2019, and had dealt with a lot of rejections. I remember submitting my Leakey grant and seriously thinking that it would be a sort of first pass, and that I could use reviewer feedback to apply in the subsequent round. When I heard the news I was delighted. It was even better because my friend and member of my same lab group, Laís Moreira, was also awarded a Leakey grant on the same day. It was a great feeling to share the achievement with her.
Q: What’s the question you’re trying to answer with your Leakey Foundation grant? What work is involved?
I am interested in different facets of primate flexibility in response to environmental change. Specifically, I am interested in how natural, short-term shifts in available food affect non-human primate gut microbiota at short time periods.
Based on previous research, we know that diet plays a role in the structure of gut microbial communities in many animals, including humans, non-human primates, and many other mammals. However, very few studies have looked at how gut communities change over short periods. I am interested in tackling this question of short-term microbiome change in response to natural shifts in the environment. I address this question by using a population wild white-faced capuchin monkeys.
Together with a team of assistants, I follow capuchins for hours at a time, recording all the foods they eat and collecting samples each time they defecate. Flexibility in behavior, diet, and other aspects of our biology is what makes humans and other long-lived primates successful in their niches. I aim to examine one small aspect of flexibility–shifting gut microbial communities–to further understand the extent of flexibility primates possess.
Q: What excites you about your work?
I have worked with the white-faced capuchins at Sector Santa Rosa since 2016 and have grown to know the forest, the monkeys, and the plants very well. However, I have also grown to know that just when you feel like you have seen the full range of behaviors, full range of plants the monkeys eat, or full range of ways they interact with their environment, there is always something more to learn. Working in a dynamic and highly seasonal regenerating forest environment is endlessly exciting.
Q: How has this project challenged you?
I recall early conceptions of this project and how many people assumed the data collection would be too challenging. After all, successfully gathering detailed dietary records while also collecting fecal samples is no small task with very active, highly arboreal capuchins. In earlier granting cycles, reviewers always questioned whether the methods for data collection were even possible. I am fortunate to be advised by Dr. Amanda Melin, who never once doubted that I could gather data in the way I had planned. During a pilot season for this project in 2018, I worked with two great field assistants, and we successfully collected the data required to ensure these methods worked. It was challenging at times, but it was very gratifying to finish a successful pilot season and provide evidence that the project could be successful.
Microbiome research in some ways is very precise and controlled, but in other ways is highly subjective and constantly changing. Though microbiome research has proliferated in the past 15 years, there are still fundamental aspects of animal-microbe symbioses that are not well understood. It can be challenging to want to ask a very specific question about gut microbial communities in a wild primate, while also acknowledging that some questions simply cannot be answered yet. This can be challenging, but also quite motivating.
Q: What’s next for you and your project?
I conducted pilot work for this project in 2018, and will return to this project in early 2021 to collect the remaining data I need. In the mean time, I am analyzing a large microbiome dataset from this same population of capuchins. Specifically, I am combining behavioral and dietary records and gut microbial data to investigate how female capuchins respond to different reproductive states.
Q: Why do you think research like yours is important?
I think that any research related to flexibility is important. Humans and other primates are very long-lived, which means we face lots of different experiences in our lifetimes. The ability to alter behavior, diet, and other aspects of our biology in response to environmental changes–whether natural, anthropogenic, or intentional–is part of what makes us human. I think that understanding a previously un-studied aspect of this–short term symbiotic microbial change–brings to light another facet of our flexibility. Understanding flexibility in extant primates not only helps us speculate about our flexibility in the past, but can also inform how primates may respond to environmental shifts in the future.