UNM junior goes ape for research
Outside the Box > > Nick Smith
By Greg Johnston
|Smith is in the midst of a gorilla study at the zoological park. Photo by Greg Johnston.
Nick Smith says the research he’s conducting as an undergraduate had its beginnings back when he was in elementary school. Smith wrote a book report about renowned gorilla expert Dian Fossey.
“She’s done some amazing work,” Smith said. “These people have had major breakthroughs and have been able to see what magnificent creatures the great apes are. That’s the dream. I want to make similar breakthroughs and so does anyone else who is doing this kind of work.”
Smith, a junior, is pursuing an anthropology major and psychology minor. He is in the midst of a study on gorilla behavior. Once a week his research leads him to the Rio Grande Zoological Park where, over the course of two hours, he observes the behavior of seven gorillas.
For a duration of 14 minutes and 59 seconds each, the great apes are observed during their interaction with others – what Smith calls “focal animal sampling.” The gorillas range in age from three months to their late 20s or early 30s.
A Primate Enrichment Program has been in existence for more than two years, involving zoo staff and the UNM Anthropology Department. Smith thinks it’s resulting in mental stimulation and increased interactions among the large primates. Different snacks and items are introduced to the environment causing increased social behavior.
Smith records his data at the same time as his UNM Psychology Professor Lorna Joachim. When their data matches up, it is entered into a gorilla database. Smith believes the work underway in Albuquerque could be instrumental in creating better habitats.
“Because they are such complex creatures and because they have so much depth and intelligence to them, they need constant stimulation,” said Smith. “We’d like to see zoos all over the country adopt an enrichment program in order to facilitate a healthier living situation for apes in captivity.”
Since enrichment started, there have been three pregnancies, a noticable boost.
“We’re hoping to find statistical evidence to say that because of this enrichment, gorillas are leading healthier lives,” he said. Prior to the enrichment, apes were resting more. Now Smith says there is more observable behavior and social interaction.
His favorite subject is a juvenile male named Jamosie.
The young ape plays a lot but is also starting to display aggressive behavior. Smith has learned to easily recognize each of his study subjects.
“The funny thing is, the gorillas recognize you,” he shared.
Smith is writing a proposal which he hopes will lead him to Costa Rica next summer to study the white-faced capuchin monkey, which has the largest brain-to-body ratio of any primate. His research will focus on whether or not the species is capable of cognition.