Doctoral Dissertation Research: The influence of plant secondary metabolites on diet selection, nutrition, and health in wild primates

Project Details


The behavior, health, and digestive physiology of humans and non-human primates have evolved to meet the demands of acquiring adequate nutrition. Primarily plant-eating primates must reach nutritional requirements while coping with noxious plant compounds (plant secondary metabolites: PSMs) that are often produced in plants. Although these compounds are thought to be a strong selective force on primates, and even responsible for technological innovations in food processing and domestication in humans, we lack a clear idea of how these compounds influence the foraging, health, and digestive adaptations of wild primates. This doctoral dissertation research project examines the behavioral and physiological strategies that a wild primate species uses to cope with PSMs while reaching nutritional goals. This research will promote the conservation of a critically endangered species by maintaining a research presence on productive conservation land and providing local field assistants with alternative livelihoods to logging. The investigators will also provide training in laboratory and field methods to underrepresented students in STEM.

While it has become clear that the foraging behavior and health status of wild primates is linked to the nutrient composition of their foods, PSMs should also be a primary determinant of primate diets and health because of the negative effects that they can have, including reduced nutrient intake, toxicity, or even reduced reproductive success. This study uses a model system to explore how both nutrients and tannins, a common class of PSM, guide food selection through variable periods of preferred food availability and nutritional status, and throughout the course of development. Tannins are thought to be detrimental to consumers because they bind and reduce dietary protein, and the primates studied in this project depend on protein-derived energy to meet energetic demands during periods of preferred food scarcity. Tannins may thus be particularly detrimental to their health, and they may therefore have behavioral or physiological strategies to deal with them. The investigators use data on food availability, feeding behavior, nutrient composition of plant foods, and results from a qualitative assay of the effectiveness of tannins in food, to test how tannins and nutrients affect food selection and preference. The investigators also measure biomarkers of health in urine samples, including C-peptide of insulin and creatinine, to see if health status is related to intake of tannin-rich foods. Finally, they quantify tannin-binding proteins in saliva, which are thought to be produced as an adaptation to cope with dietary tannins. Overall, the results of this project provide important knowledge regarding food availability, preferences and nutritional and health related consequences in primates.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date3/15/222/29/24


  • National Science Foundation: $23,147.00


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