Bringing primate research together: 16th conference of the Gesellschaft für Primatologie

28 May 2019

Delphine De Moor1,2,3,*, Alan V. Rincon1,2,3

1Department of Behavioral Ecology, Johann-Friedrich-Blumenbach Institute for Zoology and Anthropology, University of Göttingen, Kellnerweg 6, Göttingen, Germany
2Research Group Social Evolution in Primates, German Primate Center (DPZ), Kellnerweg 4, Göttingen, Germany
3Leibniz ScienceCampus Primate Cognition, Göttingen, Germany
*Correspondence and present address: Delphine De Moor, Department of Behavioral Ecology, Johann-Friedrich-Blumenbach Institute for Zoology and Anthropology, Kellnerweg 6, 37077 Göttingen, Germany

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From 13 to 15 February 2019, the 16th conference of the Gesellschaft für Primatologie (GfP) was hosted at the Deutsches Primatenzentrum (German Primate Center, DPZ) in Göttingen, Germany. The GfP (, established in 1988, is an association of primate researchers from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, with society meetings held every two years. This year's meeting was organized by Julia Ostner, Oliver Schülke (Department of Behavioral Ecology, University of Göttingen, and Research Group Social Evolution in Primates, DPZ), and Julia Fischer (Cognitive Ethology Lab, DPZ), together with Leibniz-ScienceCampus Primate Cognition.

Over 130 scientists from 14 countries attended the conference, representing a broad spectrum of primate research fields. The aim of the conference was to foster the exchange of ideas between different disciplines, ranging from behavioral ecology, genetics, and cognition to conservation and welfare. The vibrant social environment provided many opportunities to network and establish new collaborations. As the GfP intends to promote young researchers, many conference contributions were from students, giving them the opportunity to share their work and discuss their results with experts in the field. In total, over 70 posters and talks were presented, including four keynote presentations by internationally renowned researchers.

Amanda Melin from the University of Calgary kicked off the conference with a plenary talk on the evolution of color vision in South American capuchin monkeys. Her research offered a great example of how seemingly unrelated disciplines like feeding ecology, genetics, and morphology can be integrated to produce cutting-edge research. Amanda demonstrated how both trichromatic and dichromatic color vision is maintained in wild capuchins by balancing selection: trichromats can detect red fruit more easily against green foliage, whereas dichromats forage more efficiently on camouflaged insects. She also showed that capuchins use their sense of touch and smell to determine when fruits are ripe.

Christoph Völter from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna began the next day with a plenary talk on flexible tool use in chimpanzees. He highlighted the shortcomings of test batteries to elucidate differences in primate cognitive capabilities from a comparative perspective. Comparing cognitive capabilities in primates is difficult because several cognitive abilities may contribute to solving a single task. These comparisons would improve if many tests were conducted per ability to assess the reliability of each test. Christoph suggested that large-scale collaborations are necessary to carry out such intensive testing regimes and inter-species comparisons and introduced one such project – the ManyPrimates project – which is currently underway. Johanna Henke-von der Malsburg (University of Göttingen and German Primate Center) closed the first session with a talk on her master's thesis on innovation in mouse lemurs, for which she won the GfP Award for Young Researchers of 2019. She compared two sympatric mouse lemur species – a specialist and a generalist – in their performance in problem-solving tasks. She found that both species performed well at finding solutions to novel problems, but specialists were more efficient at finding novel solutions to familiar problems.

In the following session focusing on sociality and health, Charlotte Defolie (University of Göttingen and German Primate Center) presented her research investigating 10 possible determinants of parasite richness in wild red-fronted lemurs. Factors that mainly influenced parasite transmission and infection susceptibility included social bond strength, reproductive stage, and age. During the last session, covering inter-group interactions and socio-spatial dynamics, Miguel De Guinea (Oxford Brookes University) demonstrated that black howler monkeys optimize the placement of their route networks. Frequently used routes included open canopy spaces where howlers could easily monitor preferred feeding trees and occurred less at high elevations and on steep slopes, allowing them to minimize energy expenditure.

Andrea Migliano from the University of Zürich opened the last day of the conference by presenting her research on hunter–gatherer communities, exploring the origins of human culture. She argued that pair bonding and the lack of philopatry for both sexes led to complex social networks in ancestral hunter–gatherer communities. This allowed individuals to interact with many group members. She went on to propose that these complex multi-layered social networks, connecting several families and camps, favored the exchange of knowledge, which was key for the evolution of human cumulative culture. In the next session, dedicated to primate reproductive strategies, Julia Kunz (University of Zürich) presented her work on forced copulations in orangutans. She found that higher male–male competition increased both male mating attempts and female resistance. Later, Astrid Rox (Biomedical Primate Research Centre Rijswijk) spoke about factors influencing the success of male introductions into social groups in captive rhesus macaques. She highlighted the importance of naturalistic group housing and of mimicking natural migration patterns to maintain long-term stable captive primate groups and consequently improve primate welfare.

Margaret Crofoot from the University of California, Davis, ventured a look into the future of primate research, by demonstrating the capabilities of cutting-edge technology to measure group movements in unprecedented detail. By combining GPS tracking and 3-D habitat reconstruction in a group of wild baboons, she found that group movement is more likely when movement is initiated by many individuals rather than a single leader. Baboons also prefer to move along paths that other troop members recently traversed, and they avoid areas with dense vegetation. Next, in a session on primate genetics, Lauren C. White (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig) spoke about the hybridization capture method which allows for the use of low-quality DNA, typical of non-invasively collected samples, for high-throughput sequencing. Finally, sessions concluded with a focus on future methodologies for primate research, followed by the award ceremony and the general assembly.

Throughout the conference, 42 posters were presented, exhibiting ongoing research and new results. A wide range of topics were covered, including conservation, endocrinology, social style and organization, animal welfare, genetics, and cognitive abilities, both in wild and captive settings. The variety of topics and methodologies highlighted in the posters once again emphasized how broad primatological research has become, and how important it is to try to link different disciplines together.

Funding was provided by the DFG (German Research Foundation). Logistical and organizational support for the conference was provided by Leibniz-ScienceCampus Primate Cognition (funded by the Leibniz Association), the German Primate Center, and the Faculty of Biology and Psychology of the University of Göttingen.