Primate Ecology

Howler monkey, Alouatta paliatta

Howler Monkey, Alouatta palliata


Sharon Kessler, Ph.D

Department of Anthropology

McGill University, Montreal.



James Askew, Ph.D. candidate

Jane Goodall Research Center,
Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences,
University of Southern California,
3616 Trousdale Parkway, AHF B10,
Los Angeles, CA 90089


Course Description

This course is designed to provide students with a foundation in primate ecology, behavior, and field methodology. The field station is located in a tropical forest which is home to three species of nonhuman primates: howler monkeys, white-faced capucchin monkeys, and night monkeys. Through lectures, discussions, field exercises, and an independent research project on the species of their choice, students will be exposed to core concepts in primatology and gain experience in foundational field techniques. The course material is equivalent to a university upper-level field course.

Course Schedule

During the first few days students will receive an orientation, learn the trails through forest walks, and gain experience locating the monkeys. The next phase of the course integrates traditional lectures, readings, discussions and field exercises to give the students a background in primatological theory and experience implementing common field techniques. Students will then draw upon this knowledge as they design independent research projects and write proposals. Halfway through the course, the entire field station will take a 3-day trip to the Boquete highlands where students will be able to compare the cloud forest and seasonal dry forest habitats. While traveling through Panama, students will also gain a broader perspective of the complexities of primate conservation in Panama. Upon returning to the station, students will implement their independent research projects and collect data for approximately 1 week. During the last few days, students will analyze their data, write a research report, and present their findings in the station’s research symposium.

Course Material

Lectures, discussions and exercises will cover:

  • Primate taxonomy, evolution, and natural selection
  • Primate feeding ecology
  • Primate social organization and behavior
  • The ethics of primate research and conservation
  • Study design and hypothesis testing

Night Monkey, Aotus trivirgatus

Required Textbooks:

Setchell, J.M. and Curtis, D. J. 2011. Field and Laboratory Methods in Primatology: A Practical Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Karen B. Strier (2011). Primate Behavioral Ecology, 4th edition. New York: Routledge.

Additional articles may be assigned and provided as pdfs.


Group Field Exercises:

  • Habitat profiling
  • GPS exercises
  • Census techniques
  • Behavioral observations and ethogram construction
  • Statistics for primatologists
  • Study design and proposal writing

Independent Research Projects

Students will work closely with the instructor to design and implement a study that tests a question that intrigues them. Students will write a proposal, collect and analyze their data, write a research report, and present their results using PowerPoint during the field station’s research symposium.


Students who wish to receive credit at their home universities usually need to make arrangements with their home universities before attending the course. Please contact ITEC for details.

  • Independent Research Project Report – 30%
  • Independent Research Project Proposal – 20%
  • Independent Research Project Presentation – 20%
  • Participation – 10%
  • Written Exam – 20%
white-faced capuchin1.web

White-Faced Capucchin, Cebus capucinus

Course Schedule

The course schedule will be determined on site as a function of student needs and preferences.  It might be also weather-dependant.  Contact Dr. Kessler for course details.