Karen Strier – Lessons from the world’s most peaceful primate

Author: Natasha Inskip 

Dr Karen Strier is Vilas Research Professor and Irven DeVore Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Harvard University, her current research is based in the Atlantic Forest of south-eastern Brazil, studying one of the world’s most endangered primates, the Northern muriqui. In June 2023, she will be celebrating 40 years of this continuous field study on the same population of this species. She is an international authority on the endangered northern muriqui monkey and her pioneering, long-term field research has been critical to conservation efforts on behalf of this species and has been influential in broadening comparative perspectives on primate behavioral and ecological diversity.

Dr Strier served as the President of the International Primatological Society from 2016 to 2022. In 2005, she was elected to the National Academy of Science, USA and in 2010 she was awarded the Distinguished Primatologist award from the American Society of Primatology, to name just a small number of her many accolades. She is currently serving as an Associate Editor for Frontiers in Conservation Science, within the specialty section Animal Conservation.

Photo credit: João Marcos Rosa

What is the focus of your current research and how did your career evolve?

I started out in the 1980s trying to answer questions about the evolution of social behavior in my doctoral dissertation. Muriquis are critically endangered and so every discovery was important for their conservation, well-being, and ultimate survival. My research evolved from its original goal of testing specific hypotheses about social behavior and ecology, and I decided that I wanted to continue this project because, as is true with every interesting scientific study, the more you learn, the more you don’t know. I also loved Brazil, I loved the people, and I loved the animals.

Photo credit: Carla B. Possamai / Projeto Muriqui de Caratinga

One of the most interesting discoveries I made during that first year about Muriquis is that they live in peaceful societies where males and females have egalitarian social relationships. They are the same body size, and they have the same sized canines, unlike most mammals, where males are bigger and dominant over females or can threaten females. In muriqui society, the females are completely integrated with and equal to the males. Their peaceful society shows no evidence of agonistic  dominance or hierarchies that you see in baboons and chimpanzees. The muriquis have a very different system. They didn’t fit any of the existing models, and maybe the models were applicable to particular cases but societies such as muriquis had not been considered. This led to the idea that there was no such thing as a typical primate, which subsequently was reflected in one of my most important publications ‘The Myth of the Typical Primate’.

I also recognized the importance of getting more and more Brazilians involved in this kind of research. That is why from the very start a big part of my project has been aimed at capacity building. Every year, I provide support and training to up to 4 Brazilian students, so over the years the Project has trained about 90 students at the field site. About two thirds of them have gone on to continue with research and some of them now have their own studies of muriqui populations in other forests and we continue to collaborate. This process has been very satisfying and very rewarding. Just over 50% of those trained on the project have been women. In the beginning, it was more male students and in the last couple of years it has been mostly women students.

Right now, we are still collecting a lot of basic data. Over the past 40 years the population has exploded, going from 50 to 356 at its peak size, and then we had a series of stressful years, with drought and yellow fever, that corresponded with its decline. The population is now at about 225 individuals. Although smaller than it was at its peak size, this is still about 5 times bigger than it was when I first started.

"We have learned a huge amount about muriquis population dynamics, individual life histories and how they adapt to changing environmental and demographic conditions. We are collaborating to make informed decisions about how to take care of these monkeys and how to protect them and increase their populations."

What is one of the biggest takeaways from your career so far?

I started out as a humble student who was eager to learn. I was working in a country where I barely spoke the language, with people who barely spoke English. So even though I came to Brazil with Harvard training and generous research funds from Fulbright, the National Science Foundation and other private organizations, I was very dependent on Brazilians to help me. I was living at the Research base with a Brazilian student who was studying a sympatric primate – the brown howler monkey – and we have remained friends and colleagues ever since. During that time the differences in the resources that we brought to our studies were so unfair and it really impressed upon me that I could provide opportunities to Brazilian students: access to funding, basic equipment, and of course the literature, because in those days you couldn’t just go online and find research articles. When I started recruiting people to monitor the muriquis for the long-term project, I was recruiting Brazilian students exclusively.

"For me, collaborating with people in Brazil has been one of the most rewarding parts of the whole project and it contributes to my optimism because there are so many locals who are deeply committed to these animals and their conservation."

What is your proudest professional accomplishment?

At different times in my career there would have been different ones. Early on in my career I was really excited at the reception to my paper, ‘The Myth of the Typical Primate,’ which was published in 1994. I had been worried that it would be critiqued, but it was actually embraced. The field had matured to the point that my colleagues were receptive to the idea that there was a lot more behavioral diversity than had been previously thought.

Another example was when my Brazilian colleagues surprised me on the 20th anniversary of my project. Back in those days, running a 20-year project by myself, without the backing of a zoo or an institution, was really challenging, especially while also meeting the demands of being a professor. I was proud to be recognized by my colleagues in Brazil.

And then, 10 years later, they surprised me again with another anniversary party.  This time, the celebration began in the city of Caratinga, where I was awarded honorary citizenship, and many people in the  local community, as well as former students, and colleagues came to celebrate.

I am now helping to organize the Project’s 40th anniversary because I want to use this momentous occasion not just to celebrate the success of the Project, but also as a way  to promote all the other people who have made important contributions to muriqui research and conservation, and who are now pursuing their own initiatives.  It is time to cast the light on others, and I’m interested in looking forward to what others are going to do next.

"A lot of the research I have conducted and coordinated has been used to inform conservation moving forward, but one of the accomplishments that has made me happiest is knowing that I am leaving the muriquis in really good hands."

As a successful woman in your field, are there any setbacks that you have faced because of being a woman?

I think that there are different sets of challenges at different times in our lives.  In general, I was very naïve about some things that are considered inappropriate and unacceptable today, and just ploughed through them without reacting or taking them personally. There were places that I felt I couldn’t go safely alone, because of being a woman, there were certain interactions with colleagues that I felt I needed to be careful in navigating. Making career decisions, including balancing between professional and personal lives, is difficult for everybody. I see both my male and female colleagues struggle when they are away from their families. All of these things factor into having different experiences.

In primatology, I think it was the generation ahead of me that pushed against those academic glass ceilings, making it easier for me and others in my generation. I was not the first female scientist that my PhD supervisor advised, and I know he learned a lot from the many amazing and remarkable women he had advised before me. I know there are still a lot of problems and challenges for women. When I hear about these, I want women to know they can reach out now, because there is a big network of women like myself out there who want to help and make sure that being a woman is not the reason that you can’t succeed.

I was the first woman to be the chair of my department, and I have had a lot of other firsts over the years. But, by the time I was elected President of the International Primatological Society, there had already been other women presidents before me. So, I feel like maybe I pushed some local barriers but some of those in primatology had already been established by other women, which made it easier for me. I think overall, opportunities for women have improved. But when you hear about some of the negative experiences that some women are still having, it is a reminder to all of us not to become complacent and just assume that because I got through it, there are not still challenges.

"We have an obligation, not just women scientists, but ALL scientists, to be vigilant. We should step in and intervene to prevent any kind of discrimination that might be happening."

Finally, do you have any advice for women who are now starting their career in science?

It is an incredible privilege to be a scientist, and it is even more amazing when there are opportunities to apply your scientific discoveries to help address urgent problems in the world, like the conservation of endangered species.  But it is also hard work. You have to be curious about the world, and appreciate all parts of the scientific process, from planning your study to collecting and analyzing the data, to interpreting the results based on existing knowledge, and then communicating your findings. You need to have patience and persistence at every step and some measure of good luck.  All of the challenges of being a scientist are easier to face when you can share them with trusted colleagues and collaborators.  Look for mentors who you respect as people, as well as for their science. And always make sure that at the end of the day, you still love what you’re doing and value its importance.

Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

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