Primates! An ASP Conference Report

By Liz Renner

August 21, 2012

The American Society of Primatologists held their 2012 meeting in Sacramento, California. Conferences have a way of re-igniting excitement and giving rise to research ideas. During the presentations, I scribbled enough notes to entirely fill a mini legal pad provided at registration; when I returned home, I was eager to share some of my experiences from the meeting with my colleagues.

The conference kicked off with an Interdisciplinary Symposium on social bonding, with speakers from a broad range of fields. The keynote speaker was Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Professor Emerita at UC Davis. With coauthors Judith Burkart and Carel van Schaik, she described the cooperative breeding hypothesis they originally proposed in a 2009 Evolutionary Anthropology article, which she elaborated on for the audience. Dr. Hrdy noted that human mothers are not exclusive caregivers to their own infants; rather, they have a more complex system of child-rearing in which mother and infant elicit support from trusted helpers (alloparents), much like callitrichid primates. For example, human mothers in hunter-gatherer groups are highly tolerant of other people holding their infants, in contrast to most non-human great ape mothers. Cooperative breeding is proposed to play a role in humans’ unique adaptations, such as cumulative culture, a tendency to cooperate with others, and certain cognitive abilities (like a focus on others’ minds). This fresh perspective on child-rearing has relevance for both anthropologists seeking to understand the social systems of human ancestors and modern parents involving caregivers from outside the nuclear family in the raising of their children.

Preston Marx a virologist at Tulane University, spoke on the origins of HIVs (emphasizing the plural, as there are multiple strains of HIV). Some HIV strains (such as HIV-1 group M) are highly transmissible, while others are less so. Years of testing have found ancient simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIVs) in African monkeys (for example, in bush meat on an island last connected to the mainland 12,000 years ago). However, HIV is a much younger disease than SIV. Dr. Marx discussed the factors (such as serial passages) that may have caused ancient SIVs that were poorly transmissible to humans to give rise to new HIVs that are much more easily transmissible. Memorably, he compared calculating ancient divergence dates from modern strains of virus to measuring the distance from New York to Los Angeles using a 1-foot ruler. I found it a great testament to the ability of scientists to collaborate across disciplines that our knowledge of HIV has come so far in just under 30 years since the virus was first identified.

The conference was a chance to learn about the recent progress made by researchers and to network with individuals carrying out related research. It was energizing to meet primatologists who are currently striving to further understand the cognition, behavior, and biology of this fascinating group of organisms, often through interdisciplinary research.