Adaptation to an anthropogenic habitat: Integrated modelling of ecological and physiological impacts on chacma baboons

Global human population growth is rapidly converting natural ecosystems into human-modified landscapes; heterogeneous land areas composed of a mosaic of natural and anthropogenic land cover types. This land transformation and associated loss of natural habitat has resulted in many animal species now living in close proximity to humans. Although some species can benefit and even thrive in human-modified habitat, for many animals the proximity to humans leads to negative interactions due to competition over food, space and other resources, as well as concerns over safety for humans living alongside wildlife. As human-wildlife ‘conflicts’ increase across the globe it is increasingly important to understand how animals adapt to human-modified landscapes and the impacts this has on their reproduction and survival.

Primates are highly adaptable, with species increasingly inhabiting human-modified landscapes where they can become habituated to living in close contact with humans. In these environments, primates can face a number of ecological challenges, including restricted home ranges, reduced natural food availability and increased parasitic infections. Conversely, close proximity to humans is often associated with the extirpation of natural predators and anthropogenic environments can also open up access to new resources, including crop fields and gardens, as well as homes and refuse dumps. Nevertheless, competition for these resources often leads to negative interactions between primates and humans (often termed human-wildlife conflict), that may impact activity, diet, physiology, reproduction and health (including serious injuries and even death). Few studies have sought to understand how primates respond to the competing costs and opportunities of inhabiting human-dominated landscapes, however, particularly in contexts where there is little competition over the primary food source for the primates.

A number of chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) groups feed at the local landfill site on the edge of the rural town of Alldays, Limpopo Province, South Africa (Figure 1). Our initial work has shown that the food available at the dump can have significant impacts on the diets, time budgets and ranging patterns of the baboons. While at the landfill site the dump workers and baboons share a commensal relationship, away from the dump local residents are often aggressive towards the baboons – particularly around their houses – chasing, clapping and shouting at the baboons. Instances of shooting also appear to be relatively frequent, and the age-sex structures of the baboon social groups is atypical despite high reproductive rates among females, suggesting significant impacts of human actions on demography. The baboons must thus navigate a complex landscape where access to resources, and the risk associated with negative interactions with humans, vary spatially and temporally. The system provides an ideal opportunity to understand the behavioural and physiological responses of primates to living in human-modified landscapes and to understand how baboons trade-off the costs and benefits of living alongside humans to survive in anthropogenic environments.

Objectives: 1) how does feeding from the landfill site and other anthropogenic food resources influence the behaviour, physiology and condition of chacma baboons and how is this mediated by natural food availability? 2) how does the response to human-modified landscapes vary between groups and how do the social interactions and competition between groups determine access to anthropogenic resources? 3) how does intragroup and intergroup competition compare to human-induced risks in determining behaviour and physiology? 4) how do negative interactions with humans and persecution events effect the behaviour and physiology of individuals and close network partners?

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Image Captions

Figure 1: Baboons can access food from the local refuse dump that can have significant impacts on their behaviour and physiology.,Figure 2: You will follow habituated groups of chacma baboons to record information on their behaviour and ranging as well as collecting samples for later physiological analysis in the lab.


The project will involve fieldwork at an established field site in Alldays, Limpopo Province, South Africa, to collect: behavioural data on two habituated groups of chacma baboons; ecological data on the broader habitat usage and microhabitat usage of the baboons using the Alldays rubbish dump, plus natural and cultivated habitats; and faecal samples for non-invasive hormone analysis which the student will carry out in the Behavioural Ecology & Physiology (BEP) Laboratory, Anthropology Dept., Durham University. The student may have the opportunity to deploy GPS collars to explore high resolution movement patterns.

Behavioural and ecological data
Systematic behavioural sampling will be used to record behaviour, diet, anthropogenic resource and space use (Figure 2). Ad hoc sampling will measure the nature and frequency of interactions with humans, and the frequencies of affiliative and agonistic interactions for determining dominance hierarchies and undertaking social networks analysis. Depending on the student’s interests there will be the option to refurbish and deploy existing GPS collars to complement the behavioural data with detailed telemetry. Phenological data collection will be used to estimate natural food availability and combined with modified methods used to determine the anthropogenic foods available in the environment.

Physiological data Energetic physiological responses to ecological factors, including food intake and human persecution will be assessed through variation in stress and metabolic hormone levels. Validated EIAs (enzyme immunoassay) will be used to analyse physiological stress levels and resilience (glucocorticoids), and metabolic rate and energy balance (thyroid hormone) from faecal samples.

Analysis Mixed models will be used to analyse and compare the combined behavioural, ecological and physiological factors affecting activity budgets, energy balance and physiological stress responses and resilience (MacLarnon et al, 2015) of the two baboon groups. Social network analyses will be to explore how social networks vary with anthropogenic space and resource use and to help examine the behavioural and physiological impact of human interactions and persecution events on close network partners.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Months 1-3: Initial PhD training, literature review, outline project design and ethical approval
Months 4-6: Pilot fieldwork in South Africa
Months 7-11: Finalisation of project plan and approval, laboratory training
Month 12: Start fieldwork

Year 2

Months 12-24: Observational and ecological data collection, plus faecal sample collection in South Africa; Presentation at SAWMA conference.

Year 3

Month 25: Finalise fieldwork data collection in South Africa and transport of samples
Months 26-31: Laboratory sample preparation and hormone assays in BEP Lab (Anthropology Dept.) University plus initial field data analysis
Months 32-36: Detailed data analysis. Presentation at national conference. Start writing up thesis in format suitable for conversion to submission of manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals

Year 3.5

Months 37-42: Finalise writing of thesis and submission of first manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals.

& Skills

The project offers the student the opportunity to develop their interests and skills in behavioural ecology and ecological physiology. Training and experience will be gained in international fieldwork, behavioural observation, ecological data collection, non-invasive hormone analysis, statistical and social network analysis (additional statistical training is available through Durham-based and IAPETUS training courses). The student may also wish to develop their skills and experience in telemetry. Skills in project management, information management, time management, written and oral communication as well as in presentations will be developed over the course of the project.

The supervisors have complementary expertise to provide the necessary training and support for the student’s project. The close proximity of Durham and Newcastle facilitate interaction and collaborative supervision. Through research groups and centres at Durham, Newcastle, and in South Africa the student will gain integration into broad-based research networks. At Durham they will join the cross-University Behaviour, Ecology & Environment Research Centre as well as the Primatology Group, based in the Anthropology Department; at Newcastle, they will join the Centre for Behaviour & Evolution; in South Africa they will have the support of RH’s Primate & Predator Project.

References & further reading

Bach, A., Minderman, J., Bunnefeld, N., Mill, A.C., Duthie, A. B. (2022) Intervene or wait? A model evaluating the timing of intervention in conservation conflicts adaptive management under uncertainty. Ecol. Soc. 27:3.
Cristóbal-Azkarate, J., Maréchal, L., Semple, S., Majolo, B., MacLarnon, A.M. (2016) Metabolic strategies in free ranging male Barbary macaques: evidence from T3 in faeces. Biol. Lett. 12: 20160168.
Findlay, L.J., Hill, R.A. (2020). Baboon and vervet monkey crop-foraging behaviors on a commercial South African farm: Preliminary implications for damage mitigation. Human–Wildlife Interactions 14(3): 505-518.
Higham, J.P., MacLarnon, A.M., Ross, C., Heistermann, M., Semple, S. (2009) Rates of self-directed behaviour and faecal glucocorticoid levels are not correlated in female wild olive baboons (Papio hamadryas anubis). Stress 12: 526–532.
Jensen, S.A., Mundry, R., Nunn, C.L., Boesch, C., Leendertz, F.H. (2009) Non-invasive body temperature measurement of wild chimpanzees using fecal temperature decline. J. Wildl. Dis., 45:542–546.
MacLarnon, A.M., Sommer, V., Goffe, A.S., Higham, J.P., Lodge, E., Tkaczynski, P., Ross, C. (2015) Assessing adaptability and reactive scope: a new measure and a case study of environmental stress in forest-living baboons. Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 215:10-24.
Walton, B.J., Findlay, L.J., Hill, R.A. (2021). Insights into short‐ and long‐term crop‐foraging strategies in a chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) from GPS and accelerometer data. Ecol. Evol. 11: 990-1001.
Wasser, S.K., Cristòbal-Azkarate, J., Booth, R.K., Hayward, L., Hunt, K., Ayres, K., Vynne, C., Gobush, K., Canales-Espinosa, D., Rodríguez-Luna, E. (2010) Non-invasive measurement of thyroid hormone in feces of a diverse array of avian and mammalian species. Gen. Comp. Endocrinol. 168: 1–7.

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