Conversations with: Professor Lynne Isbell

Today, I am very pleased to introduce Professor Lynne Isbell, a primatologist at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis)! Lynne currently holds the positions of Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at UC Davis and President-Elect of the American Society of Primatologists. Her research program is focused on primate socioecology, particularly on aspects of food competition, predation, dispersal, and ranging behaviour. She is field-oriented, and has engaged in multi-year fieldwork in Uganda and Kenya, with briefer forays into Madagascar, Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She also is the author of the award-winning book, The Fruit, the Tree, and the Serpent: Why We See So Well (2009).

Professor Lynne Isbell, taken by the Leakey Foundation at the AAPA meeting in 2019

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

I am broadly interested in animal behavior and my specialty within that is primate socioecology, the study of how ecology influences primate social organizations. In addition to observing the animals themselves in their natural habitats, I have explored the qualities of food that influence intragroup and intergroup competition and relationships between primates and their predators. 

What originally drew you towards primatology?

Jane Goodall started me on that path. I had always been interested in animals and animal behavior but when I saw the cover of her book, In the Shadow of Man, that showed a young woman much like me following chimpanzees in a forest, I immediately bought it and read it. Before that, I thought the only way to work with animals was as a veterinarian. As an undergraduate, my opportunities were with ungulates such as captive bongos and desert bighorn sheep. My focus on primates began after I moved to Davis and volunteered to work on a year-long behavioral project with captive bonnet macaques. I was hooked! Primates are so much more active than ungulates!

What was your PhD topic? How did you find your PhD experience?

My dissertation title was “Influences of Predation and Resource Competition on the Social System of Vervet Monkeys (Cercopithecus aethiops)in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.” It wasn’t what I set out to do but I took advantage of a unique opportunity. It’s very difficult to plan a study of the effects of predation on prey animals but when leopards kept eating my study animals toward the end of a slow die-off of the trees that vervets prefer to feed from and sleep in, it gave me a wonderful chance to explore the relative importance of predation and food resources on the lives of vervets.

My Ph.D. experience was one of the best times in my life. I was older when I started grad school and by then I knew it was the right place for me. But I also had the perspective that if I stopped enjoying it I could always leave and do something else with my life. That mindset gave me a sort of freedom from grad school’s often oppressive structure. I’d spent two years in the field in Uganda before I started grad school and my intention at first was to write my dissertation on aspects of red colobus monkey behavior and ecology, but I had been bitten by “the Africa bug” and when the opportunity arose to go back for another couple years to follow vervets around, I jumped at it. I will always be grateful to so many people for giving me a chance: Tom Struhsaker, who taught me field methods; Peter Rodman, who took me on as his grad student; Meredith Small, who, one day while offering me my first ever academic job as a Reader for her class, looked me in the eye and said, “you’re good”, something no one had ever said to me, and; Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney, who trusted me to be their field manager. I’m not even mentioning those who made my Ph.D. experience possible in other ways but they know who they are, and I thank them, too.

Lynne standing in front of the tent where she stayed for a time in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, when she conducted her dissertation research (1986).

After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?

Right after I earned my degree, I was hired as the lab coordinator for a huge introductory organismal biology course at UC Davis. I was in charge of the labs and of 35 TAs who taught the lab sections, and I had to make sure they knew the material. I did that for four academic quarters. Then I was offered a tenure-track position at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which I held for three years before being invited back to UC Davis.

What current projects are you working on? Where do you hope these go in the future?

I have to say that my research has ended up taking a back seat to my administrative work as Chair of my department these past several years. So, I’m eager to wrap up my last year as Chair and get back into the literature. Does that count as a project? What I’d like is to have the time to think deeply about what I’m reading and make connections that I didn’t know were there before. Then I’d like to write a book or two about those connections, preferably in beautiful places such as on the Laikipia Plateau in Kenya and in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I think it would be a good use of my sabbatical time.

What project or publication or discovery are you most proud of?

I really can’t narrow it down to just one. Three are equally weighted, all taking many years of my time and energy but in very different ways. After working at two field sites that others had developed, I was really proud to be able to develop and maintain my own long-term field site at Segera in Kenya where my students and I could study the behavior and ecology of vervets and patas monkeys, the latter being very difficult animals to habituate to human presence. That field project ran for 10 years.

Lynne following habituated patas monkeys during a long-term field project at Segera Ranch, in Kenya (1999).

I am also proud of developing the Snake Detection Theory. Once the question popped into my head — could snakes have favoured the origin of primates and the subsequent diversity of the major primate clades? — it took about 10 years to investigate and understand the literature from multiple disciplines about which I knew next to nothing at first, in order to convince myself that there really was something to that question, and then to think about what I was reading in order to synthesize it into a coherent theory, and finally to write it all down so that others could see what I was seeing.

Finally, I’m proud of one particular field study that on the surface lasted one year, but, in fact, took 30 years to complete. As I already mentioned, leopards decimated my study groups in Amboseli when I was conducting my dissertation research. I’d wanted at that time to put radio-collars on the leopards I kept seeing very fleetingly but it didn’t happen. Then, 14 years later at my Segera field site leopards did the same thing again, and yet we were no wiser about leopard/primate interactions because leopards wait until we’re gone to do their killing. Another 13 years passed and then GPS technology and grant support made it possible to remotely investigate in fine detail how GPS-collared leopards interact with GPS-collared olive baboons and vervets. Logistically it was a very difficult project to initiate but with a great team in the field, including Laura Bidner, Dairen Simpson, Mathew Mutinda, George Omondi, and Wilson Longor, we pulled it off with surprising results, e.g., leopards spent a lot more time near vervets than baboons but baboons were at greater risk when leopards were nearby, and when leopards hunted, they killed vervets during the day, but baboons, at night.

Lynne with a female leopard that they had finally trapped and anesthetized to put on a GPS collar at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya (2014). The goop on her eyes prevented them from drying out.

What is your favourite memory from the field?

My first thoughts turned to events that are stuck in my mind because they were scary. They’re good stories to tell but I wouldn’t call them favorite memories. For a happy favorite memory, I always smile in awe when I think back to the moment when I stood in the dry river bed of the Mutara River at Segera and turned to see the beginning of the fresh new river trickle toward me from its origin as rain in the Aberdare Mountains. How many people ever get to see the front of a river? I am a very lucky person! The times I touched a leopard were also very special, almost spiritual, moments for me.

If you were not a primatologist, what would you be?

I think maybe an investigative reporter. I like the truth and I enjoy searching for clues to puzzles.

If you had a time machine, how far would you ask to go back, where would you go, and what would you want to see?

It would be really cool to see Australopithecus (Paranthropus) boisei in the wild and to study its behavior and ecology.

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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