Kirsty Graham ‘12

Research Associate, Department of Psychology, The University of York

Kirsty’s Question: How can studying animal cognition and behaviour impact on conservation?

Keystone Title:  Foraging behavior of Alouatta Palliata, Ateles Geoffroyi and Cebus Capucinus in Costa Rica’s lowland tropical wet forest (Cano palma Biological station)

Abstract: Kirsty studied three types of primates and their diets in Costa Rica’s tropical forests, using scan sample methods to record the diet and activity levels of the primates in order to determine key habitats for future conservation. Her research observes the important connection between caloric intake and activity of these primates. Understanding the dietary requirements of primates can help determine key habitats for future conservation and drive policies to protect plant species on which they rely.

Tell us what you’ve been up to since graduating.
I finished my PhD in 2016 and I’m now working in a postdoc research group at the University of York, UK. We’re comparing humans, chimpanzees and macaques to see how communication develops. I’m spending the year in Sulawesi, Indonesia, with “yaki” (Sulawesi black crested macaques) to collect data for comparison.

Wow! What a cool job. What does an average day look like for you?
I wake up at 4:15 am, eat breakfast, pack lunch, and set off to the monkeys’ sleeping tree. Then I follow the monkeys for 12 hours, observing their behaviour and recording video footage.

You’re brave! Are you ever nervous to work with wild animals?
The forest isn’t that scary. There are big pythons, but they’re really slow, sleepy and beautiful. The spiders look mean, but aren’t dangerous. It’s mostly just the mundane stinging nettles, mites, mosquitoes…and being constantly sweaty and itchy.

The one time I have felt nervous, I saw five bush pigs pulling apart a big python. It was gnarly! The macaques were really curious and climbed trees to watch. I kept my distance and got up a tree, too.

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened while working with monkeys?
The infants fall backwards off logs all the time! Sometimes an infant will climb up a sapling and a bigger juvenile will pull the sapling down and try to catapult them off. The crested macaques are really playful, and they seem to have no concept of the breakability of infants.

Why Quest?
I chose Quest because I didn’t want to go to university simply because that was what’s expected of me. I also didn’t know what I wanted to study, and Quest allowed me to engage with a range of topics that I’d never encountered before.

Is it true you named a baby monkey Quest?
We name the monkey infants with the first letter of their mother’s name, so when Quty had an infant, I just had to name him Quest. He’s now about three months old. These macaques develop so quickly. His face is already starting to turn grey. It’s really sweet to watch them change, but also challenging to keep track of what they look like.

In what ways did Quest prepare you for your future?
Through Megan Bulloch’s mentorship, I developed an interest in linguistics and understanding the evolution of human behaviour by studying other species. For my Keystone project, I collected data on monkeys in Costa Rica, which taught me a lot about conducting fieldwork.

I cannot overstate the value of Quest’s personal approach connecting Tutors and students. Going into my PhD, I was able to comfortably connect with senior staff at coffee mornings that other students were too nervous to attend. Academics aren’t intimidating, and learning that lesson from Quest has definitely shaped my experience in academia so far.

I see you dabble in stand-up comedy. I told you, you’re brave.
I’ve performed about six times. My first set was about “bonobo pick-up lines.” Bonobos use a lot of gestures to attract mates, so the set just wrote itself. My second set was about an accident I had in the field, “I wondered why the branch was getting bigger. And then it hit me. In the eye.” It was about my eye injury and the evacuation that followed. Both performances are up on YouTube for anyone who wants to see them.

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