Sunday, May 6, 2012

How to Conduct a Primates Participant Observational Study

The evolution of anthropological and scientific knowledge and understanding relies on drawing meaningful conclusions from investigational studies. These studies are constructed from a variety of study designs, techniques/methods, and analysis depending on the research question at hand. One such widely used study in animal behavior (ethology) is known as the participant observational study (Research Methods, Participant Observation). In this blog, I will provide some thoughts on how to design, execute, and analyze a participant observational study for primates, so that readers form some new and different perspectives on the importance of primate behavior research and those committed to pursuing it.

Jane Goodall (Observation of Chimpanzees)

Like most studies, the investigation begins at a central research question. This research question can be simple or complex, depending on the objectives, species, environment, complicating factors or variables, etc. One example of a research question could be: "does crowd noise at the Bronx
Zoo exhibit impact grooming behavior for siamangs (
symphalangus syndactylus)?" Once you arrive at the central research question, the next step is to propose a hypothesis. The hypothesis step is critical because it sets the scope (or boundaries) for your observational study. In this case, the hypothesis could be that "significant crowd noise (generated by weekend attendance) reduces grooming activities by 25% in the captive siamangs" because the noise is disruptive. 

A photo I took while observing the Siamang Monkeys at New Orleans Zoo

With our research question and hypothesis formed (and hopefully articulated based on some prior knowledge and analogous research), we can design the study. The study design includes the remaining Ws: what will you observe, when will you observe it, where will you observe it, and finally, how will the observation be performed. For our continuing example, we can design a study to involve weekend observations (study group) and weekday observations (control group), with a sampling of 20 visits each for 1hr at the same exhibit at morning and afternoon sessions. At this point, we would also determine exactly what would be measured to evaluate grooming (total time grooming? total number of partners? etc) and other data points to collect (time, temperature, zoo visitors, etc). The next step is to actually execute the study according to your design. If a team is performing the participant observations, make sure that they are trained together and execute the same techniques from the same perspectives. Studies must be completed consistently and rigorously to ensure that the data is meaningful. The last step of this process is typically the analysis of the data and the determination of whether it supports the hypothesis. The data must be integrated, segmented, and analyzed according to the study design, with statistics providing the significant relationships between the variables (ex: crowd attendance vs. total grooming time in the study and control set of data). At this point, with some solid analysis, you may be able to begin to draw conclusions from the study and potentially report out the learnings to colleagues and/or a scientific journal. Most studies can also help to craft the next study, as the investigations become more and more focused.

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