Connecting—and Disconnecting—in the Wild

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Madeleine Andrews, C’18

“You assume that if you’ve been to the zoo or studied an animal a lot, you know what it feels like to see them. But that doesn’t really prepare you for how breathtaking it is to see a wild animal in its natural habitat,” says Madeleine Andrews, C’18. “It was remarkable just how poignant that moment was.”

Andrews, a 2018 Dean’s scholar who graduated with her bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolutionary biology, spent two months in summer 2017 in the Argentinian rainforest, where she worked as a research intern with the Owl Monkey Project in the province of Formosa. She and her fellow researchers left their camps before sunrise to catch their nocturnal subjects in action and track their social, vocal, and foraging behaviors. Her second day in the field, peering high into the treetops through shadows and raindrops, she spied a monkey’s fleeting silhouette. Within 10 seconds, it was gone.

When her internship concluded, Andrews returned home to Philadelphia—for one day. She then boarded a plane to Punta Santiago, Puerto Rico, to begin a six-week independent research project involving a different primate, the rhesus macaque. Research has shown that early life adversity, such as abuse and neglect, impedes the ability to manage stress in adulthood for both people and animals. To examine this phenomenon, Andrews collected saliva from rhesus macaques who had been mistreated by their mothers in infancy and prepped the samples for analysis, as elements of saliva can correlate to stress response.

Two days after her project in Puerto Rico ended, Andrews was back in class, kicking off her senior year. She continued her research in the lab of Erol Akçay, Assistant Professor of Biology, where since 2016 she had been studying how social competence—an individual’s ability to adjust its behavior when given an environmental or social cue—can evolve in animals over time.

“It’s like if a kid wants to go get ice cream— he knows to ask his mom when she’s in a good mood, because he’s more likely to get what he wants,” she says.