Nunn Lab undergraduate Alexa Frink has recently been awarded the Molly H. Glander Student Research Grant and the Duke Independent Study Grant for her upcoming work at the Duke Lemur Center.
Working in partnership with Ph. D. student Caroline Amoroso, Alexa is exploring the behavioral immune system in non-human primates. Parasite avoidance behaviors are hypothesized to evolve in animals when the cost incurred by fighting infection physiologically is greater than the benefit gained by performing the behavior. This cost-benefit comparison is particularly interesting when the behavior in question is consuming resources necessary for survival. In the wild, many lemurs face dramatic seasonal changes in resource availability, and thus may need to balance the need for resources with the cost of parasite infection. Caroline and Alexa have already gotten results from their work over the summer showing that lemurs prefer to drink uncontaminated water, despite the potential costs of refusing any water source when water is scarce. These two three-hundred dollar research grants will support new experiments designed to quantify whether several species of lemurs retain this preference when the contaminated water is less apparently contaminated, and uncover the extent to which the lemurs will use behavioral, rather than physiological, mechanisms to protect themselves from parasite infection.
This study will also likely precede further investigations into the evolution of disgust and its role in the behavioral immune system. Alexa and Caroline hope that future studies will identify the role of disgust in different contexts and across the primate phylogeny.