Monkey Business

By Jennifer Donovan

The first time Julie Jarvey '11 saw a monkey in the wild, it urinated on her. "I was ecstatic," she says.

At the time, Jarvey was nineteen. Now she's twenty-four and heading for Ethiopia, where she can study the monkeys she loves so much.

Jarvey holds a BS in Wildlife Ecology and Management and a certificate in Geographic Information Systems. She began work on a master's degree at the University of Michigan this fall and—because she won an extremely competitive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship—will be doing her fieldwork at the Simien Mountains National Park in northern Ethiopia.

That will be a homecoming for Jarvey, who has already worked as camp manager at the park, home to about one hundred geladas—a species of monkey distantly related to the baboon. The gelada (pronounced JELL-a-duh) project based there is run by Jacinta Beehner and Thore Bergman, University of Michigan researchers who will serve as Jarvey's advisors.

The Gelada—a Most Unusual Monkey

The geladas are found only in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. They are somewhat similar to the baboon in appearance but are distinguished by a bright patch of skin on their chests. Males can weigh upwards of forty pounds, while the average female is about twenty-four pounds. The gelada is the only species in its genus and the only grazing monkey, living on a diet that is 90 percent grass. Though not considered threatened or endangered, there are only about five thousand geladas in the world. They're one of very few primates that live at higher elevations, climbing down steep cliffs to find protected sleeping spots.

Unlike many monkeys, however, geladas do not live in trees. "The babies will climb trees and fall or push each other off," Jarvey says. "Then they go right back up and do it again. Adults only go in trees to eat the rose hips and shake the branches."

Although she was barely twenty-one at the time, Jarvey scored the gelada project camp manager's job—partly because she was willing to work and live under primitive conditions with no pay, ten thousand feet up an African mountain, with assistants who came from a nearby farming village and spoke Amharic, a Semitic language with its own alphabet. But mostly, she was hired because she was bubbling with enthusiasm for the monkeys that live there.

"The idea of studying wild primates has captivated me ever since I watched Gorillas in the Mist when I was nine years old," says Jarvey. "I grew up idolizing Jane Goodall [probably the world's best-known primatologist, whose groundbreaking work with chimpanzees has been widely publicized]. But growing up in rural Upper Michigan does not open many doors in primatology."

Jarvey is not one to let a little thing like that stop her. Right after her freshman year at Tech, she spent the summer studying in Costa Rica. It was there that a tiny squirrel monkey urinated on her, sealing her career path once and for all.

In Costa Rica, she ran into a group of students who were following a troop of capuchin monkeys. One of the students told her they were in "primate field school."

"I was intrigued," Jarvey says. "I had never heard of primate field school."

It didn't take her long to find a primate field school for herself. She spent her next winter break in Nicaragua taking a field course in primate behavior and ecology.

"On my first day observing a troop of howler monkeys grooming in a fig tree, I received the high honor of being the first student to get hit by their falling feces," she recalls. "I always knew I was meant to be a primatologist."

An Ethiopian Experience

During Jarvey's senior year at Michigan Tech, the opportunity arose to go to Ethiopia as camp manager for the gelada project there. The job is usually a field internship for new college graduates, but her professors agreed that it was too special an opportunity to pass up for want of a few classes. So she completed her BS on an Ethiopian mountaintop, receiving hard-earned credit for field experience.

It was far from a walk in the park. "I was younger than most of the researchers working there, yet I was the boss," she says. She gathered project data, managed a team of three local assistants and the field site, dispersed and accounted for project funds, and maintained the team's rickety old truck, fondly nicknamed Sushi. "One month, we had thirty flat tires," she recalls.

Her field assistants constantly surprised her. Young men from a small village where their families farm barley and herd livestock, they were insatiably eager to learn. "They wanted to learn how to use the computer and work in the lab, how to process the fecal samples they were collecting every day," Jarvey says. "They all want to become park guides, and one has talked about getting a PhD in biology."

That illustrates an important, if unanticipated, benefit of involving local residents in the gelada project, the young researcher says. "I think it is creating a sense of pride in their native wildlife that is crucial for ensuring the animals' survival. It is also providing these local young people with a solid basis in field and biological experience and a financial base to build a successful life on. Perhaps they will lead the next generation of wildlife management in Ethiopia."

As soon as she arrived in Ethiopia, Jarvey became entranced with the geladas, which have a complex social structure and no fear of human beings. "They're used to seeing people, and they're not very curious by nature," she says. "They're definitely not vicious—unless you're another male gelada."

Geladas live in groups called units, which range from one male and one female to several males and five to ten females. Some of the males are "followers," allowed to run with the unit but rarely to breed with any of the females, Jarvey explains. Other males band together in bachelor groups. And there's a lot of jockeying for position, with follower or bachelor males challenging dominant males for their females.

"I saw one unit get taken over five times," she recalls. "It was an emotional roller coaster for me."

Jarvey identifies with the geladas because, she says, "I don't feel very different from them. You see so much of yourself in them, especially the babies. I'd just sit and watch them do things human babies do."

During her NSF fellowship research, Jarvey is studying nutritional ecology. She analyzes the geladas' diet and nutrition by comparing amounts of protein in their urine, measuring a particular fecal hormone, and examining how the elevation of their grazing grounds affects their diet.

Collecting urine samples from the monkeys could prove tricky. "The plan is to collect it with a pipette after they've peed on a rock," Jarvey explains. "The only time this will work will be in the morning when they are climbing up from the cliffs and sitting on the rocks. I'll have to see if it's even feasible to collect urine this way. If not I'll have to use fecal hormones."

The scientists who run the gelada project are focusing on the behavior and social structure of the monkeys. Jarvey's focus is more on conservation.

"Understanding the effects of seasonality, climate, and altitude on gelada nutrition and stress will be useful for future conservation efforts and will help predict effects of climate change, an especially critical issue for species that live at high altitudes," she says.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.