By Dr. John Mitani
Co-Chair of The Leakey Foundation’s Scientific Executive Committee
Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan
The Leakey Foundation established the Primate Research Fund (PRF) in 2017 through generous donations made by Anne and Jeff Maggioncalda and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The PRF provides bridge funds to long-term primate field research projects experiencing temporary gaps in funding. Awards are $25,000 per year, with the possibility of a second year of support. Since the inception of the program, we have made 27 grants to 18 projects totaling over $600,000. Seven of those grants were given in the past year.
The PRF is unique. No other public or private funding agency has a program like this. Several projects have sought support during the relatively short existence of the program, indicating that there is a pressing need for the PRF. The Leakey Foundation has made a commitment to the PRF because many of the most important findings from primate research derive from continuous, long-term study of these animals. We take for granted most of these findings as they are common knowledge. For example, wild chimpanzees live in social groups, but it took two years of work by Toshisada Nishida to establish this. Several more years elapsed before Nishida and Kenji Kawanaka documented dispersal in chimpanzees, showing that females left their natal groups after reaching sexual maturity.
Bonobos, the sister species of chimpanzees, also live in groups. They are well known for being non-aggressive compared to chimpanzees, who make lethal coalitionary attacks on their neighbors. It is easy to forget, though, that it took many years before Genichi Idani was able to observe bonobos living in different groups interacting peaceably for the first time.
Many other surprising findings have emerged from long-term study of primates: orangutan culture, the use of medicinal plants and spears to hunt prey by chimpanzees, territorial boundary patrols and raids on neighboring groups by male spider monkeys, and the “Bruce effect” in female geladas. This last finding is especially intriguing as it involves females who abort their infants when a new and potentially infanticidal male takes over their social group. While the preceding findings have emerged from careful, long-term study of primates, they also share something else in common. All were made at study sites supported by the Leakey Foundation’s Primate Research Fund!
In sum, the Primate Research Fund is a vital source of funding for primatology. Through it, The Leakey Foundation has helped maintain long-term, continuous study of primates at many sites around the world. Time and again, these sites have produced new information about the behavior of our closest living relatives, thus validating Louis Leakey’s prescient insight that studies of primates can inform us about ourselves and our past. Keeping these long-term research sites operating is critical, not only for the significant findings that continue to emanate from them, but because the presence of researchers at these sites protects primates and their habitat, thereby ensuring their conservation.