Psychology Lecture Focuses on Primates and Parenting

Dr. Stephen Suomi, chief of the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, visited St. Mary’s on Monday, Oct. 3 to present a lecture in Goodpaster Hall 195 on “Risk, Resilience, and Gene-Environment Interplay in Primates” as part of the Psychology and Neuroscience Lecture Series.

Snacks were available to those at the lecture while Associate Professor and Department Chair of Psychology Aileen Bailey introduced Suomi as someone who has spoken nationally, as well as internationally, and has had “over 315 publications based on his research.”

Suomi has a laboratory located in Poolesville, MD with two other field sites and focuses on the study of behavioral and genetic differences between Rhesus monkeys of the macaque family. “There’s nothing but farms, and barns, and 400 monkeys,” said Suomi.

These Rhesus monkeys are not genetically close to humans but, according to Suomi, are often compared to humans due to both species being so successful in reproduction and adaptation to different environments.

Due to their ability to “handle physical and social stresses better than most monkeys,” Suomi stated that these macaques live in various different places from some of India’s largest cities to places where humans would not even think of living.

On account of the shorter lifespan and the four times faster growth of the Rhesus macaques in comparison to humans, scientists are easily able to thoroughly study generations of these primates during their own lifetimes. Therefore, extensive studies have been conducted on the intricate social relationships that exist within Rhesus troops.

Each troop has an extremely hierarchical society that ranks each family in status. Infants, which are typically born within a two to three month window each year, are already associated at birth with their mother and her status within the group.

Growing up, each Rhesus macaque learns about the hierarchy within their group as well as the group histories, such as which group members have been recently fighting, which families are closer, and which families have elder members in them that gain more respect.

Suomi’s main focus within his study is that not only are individual differences in Rhesus monkeys shown to be genetic and heritable, but the surrounding social and physical environment can also affect their behavior.

Much of Suomi’s study is based around the differences between those that are raised by their own mothers and those that have no mother to raise them. Rhesus monkeys create intense bonds with their mothers during the first six months of their lives, so those that grow up with no mother to rear them have been found to have very different personalities.

The research conducted by Suomi is created by taking the infant Rhesus macaques away from their mothers immediately after birth and putting them together into a peer-rearing society. These motherless primates have been found to cling to their peers more than a mothered infant would cling to its mother, are more fearful and timid, and have less sophisticated play. These signs also are shown in monkeys that have been reared by an abusive mother.

Aided by graphs, charts, pictures, and videos, Suomi’s conclusion boiled down to one of his final statements that “good mothering is really damn important!”

His presentation went further on to study facial recognition and repetition in infant monkeys less than a week old, as well as early signs of autism. Suomi’s study on his Rhesus macaques have helped him better understand not only how their own behaviors are affected by their social environment, but in comparison how human lives can also be affected.

Junior Lydia Martin attended the lecture and said that she “thought it was interesting all the things that matched up to humans. I like that you can study things in monkeys that correlate to humans like aggression.”

The next lecture in the series will take place on Friday, Nov. 4 at 3:00 p.m. in Shaefer Hall 106 from Dr. Paul Shepard. Further details to be announced.

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