Rhesus monkeys along a provisioned feeding path outside Tughlaqabad Fort in Delhi, India
Our research program has both a basic and applied focus with an emphasis on animal behavior and management. The basic science component concentrates on understanding the social and communicative dynamics of domesticated, laboratory, captive exotic and wildlife animal systems. The applied component of our program uses the knowledge gained from this basic research to develop ethological tools for enhancing animal health, welfare and conservation.
Ongoing projects under these topical foci can be explored through the links on the left.
Basic Research: Social Networks & Health
Over the past few years, we have been building an interdisciplinary team to study how adverse health outcomes (e.g., inter-animal aggression, self-inflicted trauma, immune suppression, communicable diseases) are the consequence of specific hierarchical elements within and the result of the structure of social networks. We are interested in how the spatial and mathematical relations of networks relate to the content and quality of relationships at the individual, family and community levels and how variation in these relationships at different levels influences health and health-related outcomes.
Network structure is linked to the fundamental characteristics of individual agents and to the environmental and social contexts in which such individuals interact. Both internal factors (e.g., personality and temperament, genetic predispositions, kinship and ancestry) and external factors (e.g., different types of environmental and social stressors), as a part of the gene-environment dynamic, are considered in the interaction between multiple individuals and their multi-level relationships to examine their effects on longitudinal network dynamics. Utilizing such an approach provides greater insight into how and why basic behavioral and social processes influence specific health outcomes as well as overall health and well-being.
This research involves multiple species such as free-ranging humpback whales, African ungulates, macaques and ground squirrels as well as more managed captive populations such as laboratory macaques, sanctuary chimpanzees and beef cattle. This research also involves collaboration with multiple international agencies including the Wildlife Institute of India, India Central Zoo Authority, Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, Ol Pejeta Conservancy (Kenya), Chimpfunshi Sanctuary (Zambia), and Songshan Lake Pearl Laboratory Animal Sci. & Tech. Co. Limited (China). In fact, because of such international interest we are currently developing an institute entitled “International Institute for Human-Animal Networks” to develop an innovative research enterprise that addresses issues relating to human-animal interactions and managed animal systems utilizing a multidisciplinary approach comprised of genetics, behavioral biology, infectious disease ecology, epidemiology and network dynamics in Africa, India, and China.
Applied Research: Animal Health, Welfare and Conservation
The major programmatic focus for our applied research is on animal health, welfare and conservation. We have taken an ethological approach with a broad species base. These set of studies share the common goal of developing behavioral tools for managing wildlife and captive animal populations as well as measuring health and well-being in captive exotic, laboratory animal and domesticated species.
For example, Dr. McCowan has developed a research program at the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC) to design a comprehensive behavioral management plan for their breeding and research colony. This NIH-funded program focuses on developing new behavioral tools for monitoring and enhancing primate management and well-being for both individually-housed and group-housed animals. For individually- and paired-housed animals, we have conducted a retrospective epidemiological study on the genetic and environmental risk factors associated with the development of behavioral abnormalities, such as self-mutilation. We are also conducting prospective studies on the effects of environmental enrichment on the expression of behavioral pathologies in animals exhibiting behavioral stereotypies and self-injurious behaviors. The data from these studies is used to enhance current enrichment strategies, design new enrichment techniques and minimize the development of behavioral pathologies through methods such as selective breeding, effective nursery-rearing strategies, appropriate assignment between individual primates and specific research projects, and optimal housing arrangements. Lastly, we are conducting a NIH-funded project for optimizing nursery-rearing strategies in which we build a robotic mother surrogate that provide contingencies and feedback to infants needing to be raised without their mothers. Such research should provide us with techniques that can enhance the behavioral health of nursery-reared infants and reduce the development of behavioral and other consequent health problems later in life.
For the group-housed animals, projects currently underway include a NIH-funded study on the development of quantitative and predictive social network models of dominance, power, aggressive and affiliative relationships in group-housed macaques to assess social stability and cohesiveness for managing established groups and formulating new groups. In this work, we are collaborating with UC Davis faculty in the Departments of Psychology, Population Health and Reproduction, Anthropology and Statistics. Our research is providing strong evidence that individual, family and group characteristics such as temperament, family structure and sex ratio interact to influence network structures such as patterns of submission, reconciliation, grooming and conflict intervention that are indicative of group stability and consequent deleterious aggression and wounding in captive rhesus macaques. We are currently expanding this research to include other health outcomes, such as infectious diseases, immune suppression, and syndrome disorders. This research has generated considerable interest from international agencies in Kenya, Zambia, India and China for managing both wild and captive populations of nonhuman primates (see above). Our developing partnerships with multiple governmental agencies, sanctuaries and nonprofit institutes will expand this research to address important animal and human health & welfare issues in these countries and beyond, such as the debilitating human-macaque conflict that poses a serious public health threat in India.
Beyond nonhuman primates, our emphasis has been on the role of social networks and behavior in the transmission of infectious disease in other animal systems. Dr McCowan has been conducting collaborative research with Dr. Atwill on the social network risk factors associated with Cryptosporidium transmission in Belding’s and Golden-mantled ground squirrels in Yosemite National park and White Mountain Nature Reserve (respectively). We are also conducting collaborative research on the social network risk factors that are associated with Cryptosporidium transmission in beef calves, which can be used to develop best management practices for avoiding disease transmission in livestock production systems. Finally, we recently began a collaborative project studying social network models of commensal E. coli transmission in African ungulates such as giraffe, zebra and rhinoceros managed in Kenyan conservancies that co-manage cattle. Our goal is to improve endangered species management and conservation, such as the highly endangered black rhinoceros, in relationship to wildlife social systems, mixed-species interactions and consequent health outcomes in wild and domesticated animal populations.