Introducing Dr. Emily Mertz – Primatologist

looking for lemurs

If you haven’t heard yet, there is a new primatologist at Kansas State!  Dr. Emily Mertz has joined us and will soon start teaching courses in primatology.  The first to be offered  starts next Thursday (March 13th).  She will also teach Introduction to Physical Anthropology this Summer and offer another primatology course this Fall.  I thought you might like to get to know her, so we virtually sat down for an interview which I share with you here.

Wesch: How did you first become interested in primatology?

Dr. Mertz: I first became interested in primatology when I took a primate behavior class as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri Saint Louis. Part of this class was making behavioral observations of a primate (of our choice) at the Saint Louis Zoo. I chose to observe the lowland gorillas, which was even more interesting at the time because the group consisted of four silver-back males and one younger male. The assignment only required 10 hours of observation but soon I found myself with over 90 hours! I guess it kind of was “love at first sight” … From there I attended a field school in Nicaragua and studied howler monkeys on the side of a volcano and then soon found myself in Thailand chasing pharye’s leaf monkeys through the thick forest. My love for wildlife biology research, conservation, and animal welfare all culminated with the field of primatology. Although all primates are intrinsically interesting, I have spent the last 10 years working in Madagascar with lemurs on this amazing island.

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Wesch: Wow!  What a journey you have been on. It is great when our passions can take us around the world.  I am often struck by the remarkable encounters primatologists sometimes have with other primates.  I’m thinking of the moment Klaus Zuberbuhler actually found himself understanding the calls of Diana Monkeys in the Tai Forest where they managed to warn him about a leopard who was stalking him (http://www.radiolab.org/story/98611-wild-talk/), or Robert Sapolsky’s famous peaceful baboons (http://www.radiolab.org/story/91694-new-baboon/), or perhaps most touching, Janice Carter’s remarkably intimate time with and eventual reunion with Lucy the chimpanzee (http://www.radiolab.org/story/91707-lucy-the-epilogue/ )   Have you had any moments where you felt especially close or connected to the primates you were studying?  Any great stories to tell about such a moment? 

Dr. Mertz: I have had many memorable experiences while conducting fieldwork as well as when I worked at the Saint Louis Zoo. Having the opportunity to work with wild and captive primates has certainly given me a full appreciation for their individual personalities and complex behaviors and ecologies. As a primate keeper at the Saint Louis Zoo I valued working closely with the animals and being involved in developing enrichment programs for each of the primate taxa to encourage natural behaviors as well as promote their psychological well being. I was involved in the diet, enclosure design, behavioral observation, health, and acquired knowledge of the individual biology and ecology of the animals in order to encourage natural behaviors. I also designed and implemented positive reinforcement training programs. For example, I designed hanging scales for black lemurs, ruffed lemurs, and Coquerel’s sifaka that are housed at the Saint Louis Zoo. I utilized clicker training/target training and positive reinforcement to shape the behavior of sitting on the scale with a cued word. This was especially important for the sifaka so that we could monitor their health via weight loss (Coquerel’s sifaka are prone to dehydration and weight loss due to diet sensitivities). Moreover, I worked with one of the female sifaka during her pregnancy, habituating her to me (and then later, other keepers) touching her stomach as she sat on a platform built for this purpose. The stomach touching simulated a keeper removing the infant in case of an emergency such as the infant not suckling and requiring human intervention. The training program was a success and Faustina gave birth to a healthy infant named Luther that grew up to be a strong adult male! It was a very rewarding and memorable experience to develop trust and that close of a connection with an animal.

The Saint Louis Zoo houses a number of different lemur species and is dedicated to promoting conservation awareness of these primates. It was this interaction with Faustina, and the other lemurs, as well as subsequent conservation awareness that I experienced while working as a keeper that led me to become involved by seeking occasions to engage with the visitor community about conservation in action and the current projects the zoo and affiliated organizations were participating in to contribute to making a difference. I wanted to be involved even further and be a part of in situ projects where my research could ultimately influence environmental policy, leading to my advanced degree and ongoing research and commitment to conservation biology and animal welfare. The first time I walked into the forest in Betampona Reserve, Madagascar I was overwhelmed by all of the amazing plants and animals. The rain finally started to let up, which allowed us to hear all of the sounds of the forest, including the parrots busy eating seeds from the ravinala palms and what sounded like little pig grunts in the trees. We looked closer and it was a group of brown lemurs! Brown lemurs are the most abundant lemur in Betampona and they really do sound like little pigs grunting – these are contact calls that help keep the group together. I was so excited to see my first lemur in the forest that I hastily moved forward, brushing against a wet palm leaf hoping to capture a photo of this moment.

I momentarily became distracted by what I first thought to be water in my eye but soon realized was actually a leech on my eyeball! The irony of this situation was that I read a book, “The Eighth Continent,” shortly prior to leaving for Madagascar. In this book one of the scientists described a tremendous moment when a leech entered his eye and the ensuing difficulty extracting it. This story stuck in my brain as you can imagine and I was even joking with my friends about this happening to me in the forest. Well, here I am with a leech in my eye and no one to witness it. Needless to say, my first experience seeing a lemur is a memorable one.

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There are so many more stories… And perhaps I will tell one more. The diademed sifaka, a type of lemur, that live in Betampona Reserve are the rarest lemur in the forest. There may only be 22 of them left, which is far below a sustainable population size. Part of my field research is understanding why the population is so low and how these sifaka use the forest. One of my focal groups consisted of two females and two males. One day I was out following one of the females, Ruth, and I noticed she had something on her abdomen. I looked closer through my binoculars and could barely make out the outline of a tiny head and body. It was a baby! Within the first month or two of a sifaka infant’s birth the mother will carry him or her on the front of her body and it is not until the infant is several months old does he or she start to ride on the back. I was so overcome with happiness that I could sense the huge silly smile that was now permanently on my face. I was happy that the sifaka population in Betampona was reproducing and that I would now have the amazing opportunity to observe an infant sifaka grow up! Even after having leeches in my eye, tramping through mud and thick forest, falling down slippery hillsides, getting tangled in sharp thorny vines, and long days of endless rain and exhaustion, it is remarkable moments like this that push me into the forest everyday, hoping to make a difference.

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Wesch: It is wonderful to hear about your passion for the animals coming  through these stories.  Do you have anything special planned for the  students here that might ignite their passions and send them around  the world doing work like this?

Dr. Mertz: Absolutely! In this course students will be introduced to the exciting world of the Order Primates! If you have ever asked yourself any of the following questions or are now intrigued, then this course is for you! I wonder…. What makes primates different from other mammals? How do we classify primates? In what kind of biomes do we find primates? What do primates eat? How do primates find food? How do they locomote? Why do primates live in social groups? How do they mediate life within a social group? Can primates develop and maintain relationships? Do primates mourn? Cooperate? Reconcile? Engage in sympathy and or empathy? What are the important life history events to a primate individual? How do primates choose mates and reproduce?

Do primates use tools? Hunt? Do they have language? Why do primates have larger brains relative to body size compared to other mammals? Are primates susceptible to the same diseases as humans? What is a zoonotic disease? Why are a 1/3 of all primate taxa either endangered or critically endangered? What are some of the environmental threats to primates and how do we implement effective conservation policy?

Why are primates kept as pets, used in the entertainment industry, and part of biomedical research? How do we address ethics and animal welfare in this captive context?

We will explore these topics through class discussions and research articles, which certainly will peak individual student’s interests in the classroom but will also push some to continue on and pursue field research in different countries. It is especially rewarding for me when I have discussions with students interested in pursuing possible futures in anthropology as well as hearing about their plans to get involved and to attend field schools in different parts of the world.

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