Doctoral Dissertation Research: Water as a Selective Pressure in the Evolution of Primate Behavior


Humans can survive for weeks without food, but only days without water, and modern human populations have found creative and culturally-transmitted solutions for living in dry areas of the world. However, little is known about the evolutionary origins of water-seeking and selection behaviors. This doctoral dissertation project aims to understand adaptations to water scarcity in primates that experience highly seasonal conditions, including how they locate and navigate to water sources, why they select certain water sources over others, and what impact these decisions have on their health and survival. The results of this project will contribute to understanding factors that influenced human and primate evolution in water-scarce habitats, and could inform future interventions for humans and primates living in drought areas. The project will also support graduate student training and international collaborations, and the student co-PI will share data on water quality with communities around the study site. This project will test the hypotheses that water distribution and water quality influence ranging patterns and water preference, and that these behaviors have downstream effects on parasite infection. The project will study a population of habituated, wild red-fronted lemurs (Eulemur rufifrons) at Kirindy Forest in western Madagascar that is remarkable for surviving an annual 9-month dry season in which no rain typically falls. These lemurs subsist on standing waterholes that vary in color, clarity, and distance from lemur groups' home ranges. This combined observational and experimental project will employ high-resolution GPS collars, experimentally manipulated water availability and quality. Gastrointestinal parasite infection dynamics will also be analyzed. Through this research, the PIs will contribute to a new theoretical framework focused on water and water-borne disease as a selective pressure on primate behavior, and on the trade-offs that primates face when living in or expanding into dry habitats.


Funding Source

Division Of Behavioral and Cognitive Science

Project Period


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