FAU’s resident primatologist on her passion for understanding and protecting our furry biological relatives
There was no epiphany when FAU’s Dr. Kate Detwiler realized she would become a primatologist—a biological anthropologist specializing in primates, or, in layman’s terms, a monkey scientist. But looking back, the path that led her into the field is clear. From memories of chasing frogs and turtles as a child, to coincidentally embarking on her first research project in the same site as Dr. Jane Goodall’s acclaimed primatological work, something was always pulling her toward the research that would become her life’s work.
Detwiler’s career quickly came into focus during a semester of her junior year of college spent studying abroad in Tanzania at the College of African Wildlife Management when, in search of an independent study project, she decided to scrutinize a population of hybrid guenon monkeys in Tanzania’s famed Gombe National Park.
“In biology,” she says, “we understand that a species has members of a population that mate and produce offspring, and if members of two different species mate, the offspring they produce are bad. They’re not going to be fertile, nothing comes of it, and it’s a dead end. And I thought, ‘How can you have hybrids? That doesn’t make any sense, it must be a mistake. Let me do my project, let me go find the hybrids. I bet there are no babies, I bet it’s just something really simple.’”
As it turns out, it wasn’t really that simple. In Detwiler’s 10th year as a professor at Florida Atlantic University, those hybrids are still thriving, and she is in the rare position of being a researcher whose first project evolved into a career vocation. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop working on it,” she shares. “That’s the research I brought to FAU, and I haven’t stopped. And that’s pretty unusual.”
As Detwiler says of the elusive population, “It’s kind of like finding a needle in a haystack for evolution.” In researching the hybrids, Detwiler and her students follow the method trailblazed by Goodall in Gombe, carefully and quietly following their subjects in the wild without disturbing them. ”We go in with binoculars, we go in with video cameras, we take photographs, we follow them throughout the day, we take notes of what their behavior is. … this is through a process called habituation.”
Much of the research that Detwiler and her students are engaged in involves camera traps—embedding cameras in habitats that can produce bulk research footage, which has become more widely known thanks to nature documentaries like Planet Earth.
“We have time, the computer space and the students, so we’re able to contribute and say, ‘OK, we went through 10,000 videos and here’s what we found,’” she says. “Sometimes we’re making new discoveries about species, sometimes we’re finding them in habitats that we didn’t know they occurred in. … That work is very small in the landscape level, but it’s making a contribution, because the primates are often the ambassadors for other species that may not be as exciting as a lot of other creatures.”
Detwiler’s career has taken twists and turns that include working on a project that ultimately led to the discovery of a new species of monkey and playing a large role in the conservation of critically endangered species on Africa’s Ivory Coast. In a way, her work has even managed to follow her home—Detwiler’s first Ph.D. student began a research project on the notorious population of monkeys in Broward County’s Dania Beach.
Though the work of a conservation researcher can be bleak at times—one of Detwiler’s current projects may result in a specific species being officially declared extinct—there are still areas where she finds hope. One of these bright spots is Lomami National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was established in 2016 and is home to more unique species of primates than nearly anywhere else in the world. This new park is where Detwiler feels the “most excited and the most optimistic for the monkeys’ futures. Not in Dania Beach, not on the Ivory Coast, not at Gombe, but in this site in the DRC where the Lomami River is.” She believes that the research being done at this site can help bolster wider conservation efforts. “The primates can often attract people who may not even be working in conservation,” she says, “but it attracts their attention. And that can help.”
These days, Detwiler spends more time in the classroom than the field, but her passion for research hasn’t abated. “The monkeys don’t really pay the bills, so my position as a professor is mostly to be on campus, teaching, working with students,” she says. “But I’m dying to get back.”