Melissa Emery Thompson, Ph.D.
Ph.D. Anthropology, Harvard University 2005
My research focuses on interactions of ecology, health, reproduction, and behavior in apes and humans. A key goal of this research is to better understand the sources of variation in life history within and between species as a way of reconstructing the changes that have taken place during the evolution of the unique human life history. To accomplish this, I employ non-invasive methods to obtain urine, fecal, or saliva samples for quantification of hormone production and health biomarkers. My dissertation research explored how variation in resource access -- seasonal, interindividual, and interpopulation -- impacts the reproductive function of chimpanzees. This clearly pointed to significant and pervasive effects of energy availability on ovarian hormone production and reproductive success in chimpanzees, closely paralleling the effects documented in human females. My colleagues and I have extended this basic principle to explore the impact of fecundity on the dynamics of the mating system, as well as the wide-ranging influence that access to high quality foraging areas has on intra-group competition. I am currently working with the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project, and the Tsimane Health and Life History Project (on Bolivian forager-horticulturalists) on longitudinal projects that investigate interactions of energetics, health, and reproductive effort. These projects focus on using longitudinal data to gain an integrated perspective on factors that affect variation in life history in each species. This involves understanding how nutritional stress, immune function, and reproductive physiology are linked from early development through the aging process. I am also interested in the form and function of sexually coercive behavior in different species (including chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans), factors that influence the development of social behavior, and population and individual diversity in aggressive behavior and competitive success.
My research takes place in two very different contexts: the field locations where wild apes live, and the laboratory where we can discover the otherwise hidden biology that can help better understand ape behavior. Martin Muller and I have established the Hominoid Reproductive Ecology laboratory at UNM to foster collaborative and comparative studies of great ape and human physiology. The laboratory can accommodate wide-reaching applications in immunology, endocrinology, and health assessment using radioimmunoassay, ELISA, and multiplexing techniques. The laboratory offers opportunities for student training and collaboration across a range of disciplines.