Student Spotlight: Steven McPhee
Graduate student, Department of Anthropology, Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters
Time in forest yields valuable research on cryptic primate species
For Steven McPhee, an FAU graduate student who has traveled to 26 countries across six continents in recent years, his three-month stay in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last year would prove to be an experience unlike any he has ever known.
McPhee works with Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kate Detwiler, who in 2012 was part of a research team that discovered a new species of monkey, Cercopithecus lomamiensis, locally known as the lesula, only the second new species of African monkey discovered in the last 30 years.
In September 2013, in collaboration with the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, McPhee traveled to the Congo River Basin in Central Africa to gather information on the cryptic primate and to assess how bushmeat hunting is affecting the species.
Just how remote was the small area of forest that lesula calls home? Well, to get there, McPhee first flew into the nation’s capital city of Kinshasa, spending a week there before taking a plane to the regional capital of Kisangani, where he spent several days meeting the project team. McPhee then spent three grueling days on the back of a motorbike, mostly on a one-rut footpath, to travel the 217 miles to Yawende, a small, isolated group of villages bordering Lomami National Park.
Talking with the people in those villages, McPhee quickly learned how the conservation work that has followed the lesula’s discovery in 2012 has made the monkey a source of local pride. In Lohumonoko, the village where they set up base camp, one villager had captured a lesula and kept it as a pet.
“They’re a beautiful species,” he said. “They have these really large, human-like eyes, and they also have this bright blue behind, which is kind of a distinguishing characteristic.”
From the base camp, McPhee joined a single-file convoy of 18 people into the forest, walking 13 miles to the selected study area. Setting up camp along the Okulu River, the team conducted daily, pre-dawn vocalization surveys to assess and identify the primates present in the area. They could hear the lesula’s dawn boom echo through the forest.
They also set 41 camera traps, automatic cameras tied to a tree, which sense heat and motion when an animal walks by and takes photos and video clips for 20 to 90 seconds. The footage they gathered from those camera traps went beyond anyone’s expectations.
“We were able to get a tremendous amount of video,” McPhee said. “We ended up getting a little over 96 minutes of direct observation time, so we could really study their behavior, we could see the types of food they were eating, we could see them play, we could see them forage, we could see them interact socially. So the lesula was a really good species to study using this particular method.”
McPhee spent this past summer analyzing the date collected during the study. The team wanted to know how the lesula is faring with heavy hunting that takes place in the forest and determine if the population is shrinking like other primates. They were pleased with what they found.
”They’re a very shy, cryptic species, and very difficult to observe,” McPhee said. “The brush is thick, so they have a lot of places to hide. Because of these adaptations, they’re doing really well in the face of very harsh, unregulated bushmeat hunting.”
The team confirmed suspicions that the lesula is terrestrial, foraging for just about any vegetation it can find on the ground, which is unusual for this family of primates, which tend to be arboreal, living up in the high canopy of the forest. The monkeys are diurnal, active from sunrise to sunset.
“We were able to capture on video two different events where we saw 11 individuals in the same camera trap event,” he said. “We were very surprised. We didn’t think we would be able to capture that many at one time on video. It’s a rare event, but it does tell us a lot.”
McPhee is now writing his thesis on this research, with plans to publish results in the spring. He looks back on his three months in the DRC as one of the most difficult and rewarding times of his life. The DRC is one of Africa’s most underdeveloped countries in Africa, with decades-long conflict in many regions that make them unsafe for travel. Living in a tent with a limited selection of food, McPhee lost 25 pounds.
The collaboration between Professor Detwiler’s Primate Molecular and Behavioral Ecology Lab and the Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation, however, made McPhee’s overall experience fantastic, he said.
“The collaborators in the Congo have set up this amazing infrastructure over many years,” he explained. “They helped us get to be where we needed to be and do what we needed to do, and gave me 12 of their best employees to execute this project. It was a tremendous opportunity for a graduate student to be able to go over there and do some impactful science that people are really interested in.”
None of this would have been possible without the financial support McPhee and Detwiler received, much of it from people at FAU. The trip cost almost $30,000. He received grants from various organizations, and also raised over $10,000 through an online crowdfunding campaign on the IndieGoGo website.
“Half of that came from FAU community,” McPhee said. “They were so supportive of this project. Really excited about it. That’s a huge plus for FAU, the fact that they were willing to get behind us on this project. The reception has been amazing.”
You can read more about McPhee’s research and see photos and videos from his trip online at http://www.bonoboincongo.com/2014/03/19/lesula-captured-on-camera-in-the-lomami-basin/.