NSF Grant to Study Human-Primate Coexistence and Ecosystem Health in Indonesia

June 1, 2022
student researchers in Indonesia

The National Science Foundation International Research Experiences for Students grant for nearly $300K will support the study of people, primates, and tropical forests. 

Erin Riley, professor of anthropology and primatologist is no stranger to Indonesia and the study of Sulawesi macaque behavior. Since joining SDSU in 2006, she has led six student research teams in Indonesia to better understand the ecological and cultural interconnections between people and primates.

This new three-year NSF grant provides funding for five students from San Diego State University to travel to Sulawesi, Indonesia for six weeks each summer to engage in integrated primatological and ecological research that will advance human-primate coexistence and ecosystem health.

Each student cohort will comprise three undergraduate students and two master’s-level graduate students, recruited from groups underrepresented in the sciences. Students will receive mentorship from Riley, and her collaborators in the Faculty of Forestry at Hasanuddin University in Indonesia and develop projects on one of two topical areas related to the overarching theme of human-primate coexistence and ecosystem health: primate behavioral flexibility in anthropogenic landscapes, and tropical forest ecology – human and primate impacts.

The transformative nature of the project lies in its integrated, interdisciplinary approach to study how people, wildlife, and ecosystems interconnect and mutually affect one another. Through field study, students will gain hands-on experience, not found elsewhere. Indonesia is inarguably the best location for research on the intersections between people, primates, and tropical forests: it is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and it supports the richest nonhuman primate fauna of any Asian country, with at least 48 species, approximately 83% of which are threatened with extinction. Indonesia has also undergone dramatic changes in land cover/use within the last 50-100 years, whereby more than 40% of its forests have been cleared, primarily for agricultural development.

To expand our understanding of primate behavioral flexibility in anthropogenic landscapes, students will conduct projects examining current patterns of primate crop feeding and the factors that drive those patterns and how provisioning affects moor macaque foraging behavior, to investigate human and primate impacts on tropical forest ecology, students will conduct projects examining the impact of climate change on plant phenology and the moor macaque’s role as a seed disperser in Sulawesi’s forests, which has not been studied before.

Through this active, high-quality collaborative research experience, student participants will develop critical skills needed to become globally competent scientists and professionals. The field training will enable students to not only develop skills in diverse research methods, but also to build their teamwork and problem-solving skills. Students will learn how to write a research proposal and carry out independent field research. They will also benefit from the fieldwork experience in terms of personal growth and maturity and the development of invaluable life skills, such as interpersonal and cross-cultural communication. 

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