Graduate Student Spotlight: Silvy Van Kuijk
Mon, March 20, 2017
The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Silvy Van Kuijk, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.
If you had to, what five keywords would you use to describe your graduate work?
Primates, Neotropics, monogamy, acoustic communication, duets.
What first interested you in your line of work? What motivated you to pursue this, and what do you hope to accomplish?
To shortly sum up my line of work: I study the acoustic communication of small Neotropical primates called titi monkeys. Titi monkeys live in small family groups (male-female pair and dependent offspring), and early in the morning mated pairs can often be heard singing duets. Each mated pair has its own territory and the duets seem to be the primary interactions between neighboring groups. My dissertation work aims to unravel the function and structure of duetting behavior to better understand how these unique vocalizations may help maintain the monogamous pair bond between resident males and females as well as regulate space use between neighboring groups.
I became interested in communication in primates through a combination of previous interests. I have studied veterinary medicine, followed by a BSc in psychology & neuroscience, followed by an MSc in primate conservation. I think you could say my broad interests are animal health and behavior, communication, and conservation. For my MSc I spent a few months in northeastern Peru, collaborating with local farmers and an NGO to work on the conservation of a critically endangered titi monkey species that remains in only a few isolated forest fragments. While conducting research, I heard the monkeys duet on a daily basis and got curious. Why are these small primates attracting so much attention to themselves with these loud songs? What is their purpose? How does it tie in with the fact that they are monogamous? Why do they sing on some days but not on others? I hope that my continued work on duetting behavior will help answer these questions
A lot of your fieldwork requires you to work in densely forested areas, what is this process like and what challenges do you face, if any?
I conduct my research at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, a research station in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Imagine a lush rain forest like you see in NatGeo documentaries: red scarlet macaws flying overhead, majestic jaguars sneaking through the forest, monkeys swinging through the trees. That’s exactly what it looks like. However beautiful, the Amazon rainforests still remain challenging terrain to work in. Next to water and food for the day, you’ll find many other vital parts of equipment in my backpack. For example, I often bring clippers with me. Titis enjoy hanging out in dense vegetation full of lianas, thorns, bullet ants, small wasp nests at the bottom of leaves and the occasional snakes. You have to be careful at all times, and I regularly end up so stuck in vegetation that I have to cut myself loose. At those moments I always wonder who studies who. The male titi, Luciferus, often calmly observes me while I clumsily try to free myself from the lianas and thorns. He seems amused, but I may just imagine that.
Recording the vocalizations of small primates that sing their duet fairly infrequently is also challenging. I’m never certain if the monkeys will sing or not on any given morning, but when they do the forest turns into a cacophony of duets. Other groups in the area will respond to duets of nearby groups. Some days they will politely wait until another group has finished singing until they start their own duet, but on other days all politeness goes out the door and all groups seem to sing at once. It is hard to keep track of which groups I have already recorded, which groups were moving while singing and who was responding to who.
How do you manage researching something that is so mobile? What goes into tracking and how do you sustain this sort of monitoring?
I leave camp somewhere between 5:15 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., hoping to locate the monkeys before they leave their sleep tree. Titi monkeys are small primates that weigh roughly 2 pounds and are true masters of disguise. To facilitate the location and tracking of these animals, each study group has at least one individual wearing a radio collar (a small collar that sends out a VHF radio signal). To locate an individual, I tune a handheld receiver to the signal of the monkey I’m looking for and then use a large antenna to pick up the signal emitted by the radio collar. That way I can find the monkeys, even if they are still sleeping out of sight in a tree. However, the batteries in these radio collars run out every few years. We then have to carefully capture the monkeys and replace their collar. It requires good planning and a lot of patience. These moments are also great opportunities to check the health of the primates. In roughly 15 years we’ve never found parasites!
As an archaeologist, I am used to working with things that are left behind from the past. What is it like working with living animals in their natural habitat?
It is my favorite pastime to see animals in their natural habitat doing their everyday business. So much so that I decided to make a career out of it. With the titis in particular, I enjoy watching early morning rituals, little hissy fits, and the kids growing up. Each individual has a very personal character, and I enjoy getting to know all of them. However, the main reason why I work with living and wild animals is because you can directly assess how changes in their environment affect their potential to survive. Changes in weather patterns can result in a change in forest structure. In turn, both of these things can affect primate behavior and health. Human influences can also drastically impact primate lives. Anthropogenic noise can alter communication and other anthropogenic disturbances such as habitat destruction and deforestation can greatly affect primate behavior, health and survival. But just like you do as an archaeologist, we also try to understand things from the past. Through studying aspects of, for example, current primate behavior, ecology, morphology, or genetics, we can try to understand what evolutionary forces have shaped things to be the way they are now.