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The Triangle - The Independent Student Newspaper at Drexel University

Guest presents Ecuadorian research

Anthony Di Fiore, associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Anthropology, was invited to Drexel Oct. 3 to present his findings on white-bellied spider monkeys titled “The Social System of Wild White-Bellied Spider Monkeys in the Amazonian Forest: Insights from Long-Term Observations and Molecular Data.”

Di Fiore and his research team traveled to the Ecuadorian Amazon to study white-bellied spider monkeys.

“[I] have been studying white-bellied spider monkeys, along with other types, that share features of their social system with chimpanzees and traditional human societies,” Di Fiore explained.

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His presentation focused on the social system of these monkeys.

“In our main study group, for example,” Di Fiore said, “we find that males are pretty closely related to one another while females aren’t, which suggests that males stick around in their natal groups while females emigrate. We also know from genetic data that females reproduce with several different males.”

However, he discovered more than just social patterns. Di Fiore studied the spider monkey’s DNA through fecal matter and has created advancements in understanding their molecular genetics.

Di Fiore observed that when a monkey defecates, some cells from the lining in the gut are passed. Through these cells one can determine the social organization, study animal diets, notice geographical patterns, etc.

“The possibilities are really endless,” Di Fiore said.

He saw the amount of microbial DNA that gave an indication of the diet the primates had, as well as where the droppings were, which gave clues as to how they slept and which animals traveled together.

Through applying new technologies of DNA extraction into wildlife studies, he created more opportunities for the advancement of information about these species. He discovered the amount of biodiversity that exists in rainforests.

This application of new technology has allowed a less invasive way to study a primate who is susceptible to human impacts.

“They are pretty good indicators of the health of an ecosystem,” Di Fiore explained

According to Di Fiore, if we can accumulate more information about these species, we can note patterns and changes in the environment and therefore create predictions.

“I wanted students to leave with an appreciation for some of the fun and challenges of fieldwork,” he said.

Di Fiore was invited to Drexel by Sean O’Donnell, associate head of the Department of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental Science, to present these findings.

Di Fiore said he has had a passion for primates ever since he met professor Meredith Small at Cornell University when he was an undergraduate. He later went to work for her graduate adviser, who took him to Ecuador his first semester of grad school, and since then he has been studying primates.