Training Program: Primate Reproductive Biology

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Quick Facts

Reproductive variation is the currency of evolution, with individuals who produce more offspring having higher chances of passing on particular characteristics. But what determines who gets to reproduce, and why do we see reproduction regularly skewed toward particular individuals? In tamarins and other callitrichine primates, these questions are particularly perplexing. While multiple females may live in a group, reproductive success is generally limited to a single primary breeding female. This female gives birth to twins that are cared for by other members of the group. However, the other females in the group almost never reproduce. Captive studies suggest that this suppression of reproduction occurs via physiological means, where non-primary females experience delayed development or temporary pauses in ovarian cycling. These responses occur in response to the sight or scent of the primary breeding female or in groups where the only available breeding males are closely related. In the wild, though, we get a more complicated story. Group members are more widely dispersed and their home ranges overlap extensively with other groups, and contrary to what’s been found in captivity, the few studies on wild female reproductive physiology show that non-primary breeders are experiencing regular ovarian cycles. Nevertheless, they still do not reproduce, and the single primary breeding female remains.

What is happening in these natural systems? Through what behavioral or physiological mechanisms does this extreme variation in female reproductive success persist, and why? Answering these questions is key to understanding not only the basic dynamics of callitrichine reproduction, but the fundamental element driving callitrichine evolution. To this end, this project will use behavioral observations and hormone profiles from female tamarins in conjunction with data collected by the Wildlife Monitoring and Behavioral Ecology teams to investigate female reproductive physiology, relationship dynamics between females within and between groups, and genetic relatedness between individuals in the same and neighboring groups.

By the end of this program, you will have gained a number of skills essential to the study of animal behavior (especially primates) and non-invasive hormone monitoring. These include the ability to:

  • Conduct full-day behavioral follows of wild primates using focal, scan, and ad-libitum data sampling methods
  • Collect and process fecal and urine samples, including steroid hormone extractions in a field laboratory
  • Use radio telemetry equipment to locate groups
  • Clean and organize data for a relational database system
  • Comfortably and safely work and move on and off trail systems in a Neotropical rainforest

Research assistants will also have the opportunity to contribute to publications that result from this research. As with other FPI projects, we do not give co-authorship for collecting data alone, but we do welcome students interested in data analyses for potential future publications.

We are currently recruiting participants with the following requirements.  If you are uncertain if you are eligible, contact us to confirm.

  • Participants must be at least 18 years of age by the time the training program begins
  • Participants must demonstrate a grounding or strong interest in animal monitoring and biology
  • Previous field experience is not required, but previous behavioral research experience is a plus
  • Participants must justify why this program is important to them, and what they hope to gain from it
  • Participants must provide a letter of recommendation from a source that can substantiate the participant’s experience and skills
  • Participants must be in good physical condition, with the capability to walk 4 miles a day
  • Participants will not be discriminated against for medical conditions they might have, if we determine that being on this project will not pose an immediate risk to their health
  • Participants must sign waivers of liability for this project and for the field station before their participation in the project is finalized
  • Participants must be willing to maintain long hours in the field, and return to complete data entry in the evenings.
  • Sometimes we wait and are unsuccessful – this is the nature of the work. Participants must demonstrate patience
  • Participants must be reliable – when a team is assigned to work with a group of animals, days of planning go into the execution of the protocol. Carelessness and tardiness on the part of the participant could jeopardize the entire project.
  • Due to the nature of the work and weather constraints, participants MUST be willing to be flexible about their schedules
  • Participants must exhibit a willingness to adjust your schedule to primate daily activity patterns. This can require waking up early, sometimes by 4 or 5 am, and going to bed early, 8 or 9 pm.

Questions about tamarin reproductive biology and genetic chimerism were the focus of Mrinalini Watsa‘s doctoral dissertation, and pursuing the answers led to the founding of FPI in 2009.   She remains a primary investigator today, along with FPI co-founder Gideon Erkenswick, who commenced sampling for fecal steroid hormone when his project on parasite ecology began in 2012. Most recently, they have been joined by a new principal investigator leading the field team: Rachel Voyt. Rachel is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin who will be working on her dissertation research with FPI at the Los Amigos Biological Station this summer.

Frequently Asked Questions

There are pretty firm minimum requirements for each program (3- to 6-week commitments). These are firm because each research assistant must be trained, during which time the data they collect cannot be relied upon entirely. Anything less than the minimum time is deemed insufficient for the research assistant to contribute real data to the project. However, for most programs, you are welcome to apply for stays that are longer than the minimum period – in fact, we really do recommend and love it when you do!

You absolutely can apply to both a field course and an RAship program if the dates will line up! In fact, if you are accepted into the research assistantship, you can attend a field course for a lower fee (typically a $400 discount)

In order to train our research teams, it is necessary that everyone arrives on specific start dates. However, for some programs we are able to provide multiple start dates in order to accommodate the varying schedules of our research assistants. Note: this is not offered for all of our programs, so please pay attention to the specific start times for each program.  If you REALLY cannot make a particular start date, don’t abandon hope – email us and we can do our best to accommodate you!

Our courses have fewer enrollment requirements, and we strongly encourage anyone to apply. The research assistantships are more competitive, and there are fewer positions available.

No, you do not need previous research experience. These are training programs designed for participants at all levels. It can be hard to acquire field experience, so we balance our teams with veteran researchers and those new to the world of field research. We seek bright and enthusiastic candidates with the right temperament to work in this challenging environment. 

The cost to participate includes lodging and all meals at the field station, transportation between Puerto Maldonado and the field station, specialized training for candidates accepted into the program, and the provision of equipment and supplies necessary to conduct this research.

A large majority of the fees paid to our training programs cover lodging fees charged by the host field station. Importantly, at the Los Amigos Biological Station lodging fees not only support the cost of running and maintaining a remote field site, but contribute to the larger mission of their parent NGO (Association for the Conservation of the Amazon Basin) to protect conservation areas, monitor deforestation, maintain wildlife corridors, and more.

We are now able to offer a peer-to-peer fundraising program for research assistants. Once accepted, you would be able to create a shareable profile on our platform. This is a team-based initiative, so half of your raised funds will go toward your own program fees, while the other half will go into pool to be split evenly among all program participants who had at least 5 donors. More details will be available during (and after) your interview. If you require help with the cost of the program, there are other options that you might pursue as well. You could start by contacting the Office of Undergraduate Research of your school, or request professional development support from your employer. Here you can explore what is available through your college/place-of-work, as well as through external funding sources. Many universities have SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) programs, which may provide stipends for students to pursue independent research. Please note that if you do find any kind of research-related funding — as many RAs have in the past — it will need to be applied for in conjunction with us, on research projects that we approve. In this case, one of our principal investigators will consult with you about developing a project that is feasible.

Some candidates may have an opportunity to win a grant that will fund their research assistantship site fees and travel. However, the grant requires them to submit a research proposal. If this is your situation, we may be able to work with you on a proposal. Contact us at info(at)fieldprojects.org and we can help you structure one. We cannot accommodate completely independent projects, but we can assist you with finding a subset of our samples or data that has not yet been full used, which you could develop further with supervision.

Yes, you can. We do not give co-authorship for collecting data alone, but we offer interested students the opportunity to work on data analyses after the summer research program, that could lead to co-authorship in the future. Many of our former field team members have gone on to become research collaborators.

Once you make your payment towards the program, we will go ahead and book your stay at the field station, which requires us to pay in advance and provides no refunds. We also block your spot and reject other applicants based on your being on the team; thus cancellations can affect team recruitment quite strongly. Nevertheless, we do recognize that circumstances sometimes demand cancellations – so we do the best that we can, given the restrictions we are under.

Here is our cancellation policy: 

  • 45 days before your start date: 45% refunded
  • Less than 45 days from your start date: no refund is possible
If you have extenuating circumstances, or applied closer than 45 days to your start date, please contact us to confirm your specific cancellation policy.

1. Apply online here. You will need a CV/resume and two references.

2. Once we hear from your references, we will schedule an interview with the principal investigator of your desired project

3. If accepted, you will be notified within 1 week

4. Upon acceptance, gain student access to online training modules to get prepared before you arrive.

5. Turn in medical info, vaccination record, liability waivers, etc.

6. See you in the field!

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