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Planet of the Primates


Two anthropologists in the Social Sciences department are part of an emerging research cluster devoted to primatology – the study of non-human primates – that will significantly raise UTSC’s profile in the field. Professor Joyce Parga recently received funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to establish the first lab in Canada combining the study of genetics and social behaviour in primates. The new Molecular Anthropology and Primatology Laboratory for the Study of Evolution (MAPLE) will analyze the DNA of ring-tailed lemurs in relation to their reproductive performance.

“This lab will be a wonderful resource for our students,” says Parga, who conducts her fieldwork each fall on St. Catherines, a coastal island off the U.S. state of Georgia – the only place where researchers can study free-ranging ring-tailed lemurs outside their native Madagascar.

To understand the unusual mating behaviour of this species (which, like all lemurs, faces the risk of extinction), Parga and her team will use genetic analysis to gauge the success of male reproductive strategies – which means taking samples back for analysis in the MAPLE lab.

“For undergraduates to get this kind of research experience is really valuable,” Parga says. “Anthropology students may discover a nascent interest in molecular genetics.”

Parga’s colleague Professor Michael Schillaci (pictured at right) advances primatalogy research from an entirely different angle. The biological anthropologist studies variation patterns of growth and morphology within species, focusing on Asian macaque monkeys, primarily from Indonesia and Singapore.

In addition to non-human primates, he is also interested in modern human evolution. “Unlike most biologists,” Schillaci explains, “biological anthropologists are interested in the social or cultural context of variation and evolution. We’re interested in humans and primates as cultural and social animals.”

Schillaci’s work focuses on some of the pivotal – and controversial – events in our evolutionary past. In a recent article in the Journal of Human Evolution, he presented evidence to suggest that the migration of early humans from Africa into southern Asia may have occurred up to 50,000 years earlier than previously surmised by scientific consensus.

In blurring the traditional boundaries between academic disciplines, bioanthropology is opening up new paths to understanding humanity’s origins. At the same time, this exciting interdisciplinary area attracts top young talent.

Several of Schillaci’s undergraduate students, in addition to working with his research team on campus and in the field, have presented at conferences and published articles in peer-reviewed journals.

“That’s something I’m proud of,” the professor says. “I think our undergrads’ success could be a model for others.

© University of Toronto Scarborough