Meet a primatologist: Julia Fischer

By Judit Castillo and Maria Padrell,  Master’s Degree students in Primatology at UdG-Fundación Mona,  2016-2018

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Julia Fischer is the head of the Cognitive Ethology Laboratory at the German Primate Center in Göttingen (Germany) and a Professor at the University of Göttingen. She studies communication, cognition and social behavior in Old World monkeys from an evolutionary perspective. Her research combines fieldwork with Guinea baboons in Simenti (Senegal) with cognitive testing on long-tailed macaques at the German Primate Center. She is a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and a member of the Senate of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG).

 

1- While doing some research about your professional life, we’ve read that after finishing your degree in Biology, you originally intended to be a marine biologist. However, that changed after your first experience with primates, specifically with Barbary macaques. What caught your attention and finally made you decide to study primates?

I was working on a mudflat in Scotland, studying the community composition of meiofauna, ie animals that live between single grains of sand. They were all dead when I identified them. I decided that I wanted to study animals that were alive and so large I could see them with my bare eyes. I first thought about studying the behavior of marine mammals, but for this I needed a course in Animal Behaviour. That course took me to Southern France where we watched Barbary macaques in a large outdoor enclosure. I was captivated from the first moment and was not sad to kiss the seals good-bye. But I do miss the sea sometimes.

2- Who were your influences at the beginning of your career?

The book that changed my life was “How monkeys see the world “by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth. It was a real eye-opener and greatly inspired my studies. I was lucky enough to work as a postdoc with them later on.

3- After completing your Ph.D., you spent a year and a half studying Chacma baboons in a field station in Botswana (Baboon Camp). That must have been such an adventure! When considering doing fieldwork, sometimes students fear the difficult conditions, the dangers they might encounter or the fact of being away from home for a long time. For you, what were the worst and the best thing about being in the field?

The best thing was that I discovered so many new things about myself: I enjoyed the solitude, I found that I had stronger nerves than I expected, and I really loved the long walks in the heat. The worst part were the snakes, I think. They instilled this primordial fear in me.

4- Throughout your career, you’ve gained wide experience studying primates both in the field and in the lab. Could you tell us an example that illustrates why the combination of these two approaches is essential to fully understand their behavior?

In the wild, you study what the primates actually do. And in the lab, you can get at what they CAN do, but you may not necessarily see this in the wild. This combination of identifying what is relevant to what is possible can be very illuminating when you try to understand primate minds.

5- You have studied social behavior in Barbary macaques, Chacma baboons, and Guinea baboons. Despite that from an evolutionary perspective these species are less closely related to humans than apes, what can they tell us about the way we humans interact with each other?

All three species live in relatively large and complex groups so that they are good models to look at the link between social complexity, vocal behavior and cognition. One thing that makes the baboons particularly interesting is that they live in different types of societies with different grouping and mating patterns. In the “savannah” baboons – to which the Chacma baboons belong – groups are stable, females are philopatric and males disperse. In hamadryas and Guinea baboons, dispersal is female biased and the animals live in multi-level societies. Understanding the causes and consequences for this variation is really intriguing.

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Credit: Kurt Hammerschmidt

6- Two great questions in primate communication are whether there is intentionality and referential nature in vocalizations, topics that you have deeply studied. What is the current state of this discussion? Is there enough evidence to support a certain hypothesis?

Oh, well, I think it really depends on who you ask. There are still a number of people who find the concept of referentiality useful. I think we do not really need it anymore because after many years of study we now understand that what is typically known as referential communication, for instance, communication in the predator context, is not fundamentally different from other forms of vocal communication. A great deal of communication relies on signals that are in one way or another predictive and recipients who are able to understand that link. The interesting question is rather why some calls are more specific than others. With regard to intentionality, the biggest issue is how you define it. I would maintain that there are many instances of goal-directed signaling in primate communication, but that is not the same thing as “common ground”, ie that I understand that you do not only understand what I say but also that I have the intention to communicate this information for you to understand it.

7- Regarding the previous question, what key aspect do you consider should be more deeply studied and assessed in primate communication?

I would really like to know why vocal communication reveals such limited “evolvability” compared to social behavior, for instance. Baboons grunt the same way all over Africa to regulate their relationships, but they live in fundamentally different societies. That’s a great puzzle.

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Cover of the book “Monkeytalk” published by The University of Chicago Press.

8- At the German Primate Center your research group conducts cognitive test on long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis). Could you tell us more about this project? What kind of questions are you trying to resolve at the moment?

One of the big questions is in which way monkeys’ performance in cognitive tasks is modulated by the performance of others. Humans are extremely sensitive to this, even when they are not directly competing. A person who jogs past you at lightning speed may frustrate you, so you may run a bit slower or just keep it up, but if someone runs just a little bit faster, you may be tempted to increase your speed. We wanted to know whether we find similar effects in our monkeys. But they were relatively oblivious to the performance of another monkey working on the same task. We are now doing a number of follow-up tests to see whether we can identify conditions where they might be sensitive to others’ performance.

9- Your book Affengesellschaft (2012), which brings your research near to the general public, has been recently translated to English under the title Monkeytalk: Inside the Worlds and Minds of Primates. Do you think that popularization is a pending subject in Primatology? In other words, that there is a need to raise awareness of the importance of studying primates?

My book is only one of many books that have been written on primates; I guess people who are buying these books do not need to be convinced that primates are in peril, or that it is important to understand them better. Yet, it is worthwhile to reach out to broader audiences and try to explain how the field continues to develop. And some people also seem to be genuinely curious about life in the bush.

10- In a previous interview about your career you wished for a time machine. Would you change anything about your past if you could?

Not really. I think I have mostly been very lucky so far.

11- And finally, what would be your advice for Primatology students who want to become successful researchers?

Some people go into primatology because they like the lifestyle and because it seems to be cool. But to be a really good primatologist, you also need a scientific mind – you need to read and think and write and analyze complex data sets. So I would always ask a prospective student which question he or she finds interesting, and why, and whether he or she has already taken an R course.

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