News Release

Climate change and deforestation may drive tree-dwelling primates to the ground, large-scale study shows

Collaboration of 118 scientists looks at 47 primate species across 3 continents

Peer-Reviewed Publication

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

Propithecus Verreauxi

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Credit: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

SAN DIEGO – A large-scale study of 47 species of monkeys and lemurs has found that climate change and deforestation are driving these tree-dwelling animals to the ground, where they are at higher risk due to lack of preferred food and shelter, and may experience more negative interaction with humans and domestic animals.


The study, slated to publish Oct. 10, in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS),was led by Timothy Eppley, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA), and examined more than 150,000 hours of observation data on 15 lemur species and 32 monkey species at 68 sites in the Americas and Madagascar. This study was a remarkable worldwide collaboration, including 118 co-authors from 124 unique institutions.


“This study began with a discussion among colleagues about how we’d noticed certain populations of arboreal primates spending more time on the ground,” said Dr. Eppley, “yet at sites with relatively less disturbance, members of the same species may never descend to the ground.”


The authors estimated the influence of ecological drivers, including potential human-induced pressures and/or species-specific traits, on the level of terrestriality (time spent on the ground) in arboreal primates. The study found that primates that consume less fruit and live in large social groups were more likely to descend to the ground. The authors suggest that these traits act as a potential “pre-adaptation” to terrestriality. Furthermore, primates living in hotter environments, and with less canopy cover, were more likely to adapt to these changes by shifting toward more extensive ground use.


Many of these species are already burdened with living in warmer, fragmented and heavily disturbed environments that often have fewer available dietary resources. As climate change worsens and arboreal habitats diminish, the study suggests primates consuming a more generalized diet and living in larger groups may more easily adapt to a terrestrial lifestyle. 


“It’s possible that spending more time on the ground may cushion some primates from the effects of forest degradation and climate change; however, for the less-adaptable species, fast and effective conservation strategies will be necessary to ensure their survival,” Eppley said.

The study also found that primate populations closer to human infrastructures are less likely to descend to the ground. Luca Santini, Ph.D., from Sapienza University of Rome, one of the two senior authors of the study, said, “This finding may suggest that human presence, which is often a threat to primates, may interfere with the natural adaptability of the species to global change.”


The transition from an arboreal to terrestrial lifestyle has occurred previously in primate evolution, but today’s rapid changes are a serious threat. 


“Though similar ecological conditions and species traits may have influenced previous evolutionary shifts of arboreal primates, including hominins, to ground living, it is clear that the current pace of deforestation and climate change puts most primate species in peril,” said Giuseppe Donati, Ph. D., of Oxford Brookes University, one of the senior authors of the study.


Nadine Lamberski, SDZWA Chief Conservation and Wildlife Health Officer, who was not involved in the study, remarked on the impressive scale of this collaborative scientific initiative.  


“This is an extraordinary effort to convene 118 authors and review data of this magnitude. It is also a tremendous example of the insights that can be gleaned and strides that can be made when conservation is examined on a global scale,” Lamberski said. 



Collaborating institutions include: Portland State University, Radboud University, Sapienza University of Rome, Oxford Brookes University, Centre ValBio (Ranomafana), Stony Brook University, The George Washington University,  University of KwaZulu-Natal, Northwest University (China), Universität Hamburg, Sedgwick County Zoo, The Ohio State University, Humboldt State University, Asociación Neotropical Primate Conservation Perú, , Northwestern University (Illinois), Université d’Antananarivo, Universidad  Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, Universidad de Los Andes, Hunter College of City University of New York, The Graduate Center of City University of New York, The New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology (NYCEP), Roehampton University, Federal University of Pernambuco, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), University of Suffolk, Rhodes College, University of Calgary, University of California-Davis, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, California State University, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Proyecto Zocay, Universidad de Costa Rica-San José, Yale University, University of Western Ontario, Miami University (Ohio), Texas State University, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences  (SLU), Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, German Primate Center, Universidad de los Andes-Bogotá, Universidade Federal de Sergipe, Secretaria Municipal de Meio Ambiente, Universidade  Federal de Santa Maria, Universidade Federal de Goiás, Universidade de Caxias do Sul, Foundation for Wildlife Conservation (Belize), Universidade Federal do Amapá, Northern Illinois University, University of Göttingen, Saint Louis Zoo, The Aspinall Foundation (Madagascar), University of Kent, Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (IPÊ), Estacion Biologica Corrientes (CCT Nordeste) – CONICET, Association for Research and Conservation in the Amazon (ARCAmazon), Junglekeepers Peru, University of Arizona, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Wildlife Conservation Society (Bolivia), Red Boliviana de Primatología (RedBolPrim), Federal University of Viçosa, Muriqui Instituto de Biodiversidade (MIB), Groupe d’Etude et de Recherches sur les Primates de Madagascar (GERP), Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo (UFES), University of Alberta, Athabasca University, Southeastern Louisiana University, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Leibniz Institute for Primate Research, Lemur Conservation Foundation, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM), Centro Interdisciplinario de Investigación para el Desarrollo Integral Regional (CIIDIR), Conservación de la Biodiversidad del Usumacinta A.C., University of Maryland, Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas, Institute for Research on Applied Mathematics and Systems, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Kyoto University, Universidad de Guadalajara, Imperial College London, Instituto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Mamirauá, Université  d’Antsiranana, Cornell University, University of Colorado-Boulder, California State University (Sacramento), Instituto de Ecología, Neotropical Primate Conservation, Universidade Federal do Mato, Anglia Ruskin University, Instituto de Investigaciones Sociológicas de la Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso do Sul (UFMS), California Lutheran University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, San Diego Mesa College, Universidade Federal de São Paulo, Universidad Nacional de Misiones (UNaM), Instituto de Biología Subtropical (IBS), Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET), Asociación Civil Centro de Investigaciones del Bosque Atlántico (CeIBA), University of Florida, and University of Austin at Texas.




About San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance 

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is a nonprofit international conservation leader, committed to inspiring a passion for nature and creating a world where all life thrives. The Alliance empowers people from around the globe to support their mission to conserve wildlife through innovation and partnerships. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance supports cutting-edge conservation and brings the stories of their work back to the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park—giving millions of guests, in person and virtually, the opportunity to experience conservation in action. The work of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance extends from San Diego to strategic and regional conservation “hubs” across the globe, where their strengths—via their “Conservation Toolbox,” including the renowned Wildlife Biodiversity Bank—are able to effectively align with hundreds of regional partners to improve outcomes for wildlife in more coordinated efforts. By leveraging these tools in wildlife care and conservation science, and through collaboration with hundreds of partners, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has reintroduced more than 44 endangered species to native habitats. Each year, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s work reaches over 1 billion people in 150 countries via news media, social media, their websites, educational resources and the San Diego Zoo Kids channel, which is in children’s hospitals in 13 countries. Success is made possible by the support of members, donors and guests to the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, who are Wildlife Allies committed to ensuring all life thrives.  

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