Seminar Three- Predators, primates and humans in a landscape of fear.

Professor Russell Hill
Professor Russell Hill.

Today’s seminar was given by Russell Hill he is a behavioural ecologist at Durham University. His main focuses are primarily studies based on primatology, predator-prey interactions and large mammal behaviour.

He runs the Primate and Predator project (PPP) based at Lajuma Research Centre in the Soutpansberg Mountains, Limpopo Province, South Africa. This project was the main focus of his talk today.

The main aims/focus of the project are:

  • Predator prey interactions, focusing on diurnal primates as a prey species and monitoring their behaviours/ interaction with predators.
  • The role mountainous areas play in conservation and the significance of this for biodiversity conservation.
  • Observing how human presence influence the behaviour of the animals and the anthropologenic factors that may affect Soutpanberg’s local ecosystem.

This project is important as while there have been many studies in the past researching predator and prey behaviour, there are a lack of studies that focus on the distinction between lethal and non-lethal effects of predation and how these influence prey behaviour.

So what does that mean?

Lethal impacts: Direct predation, this impacts species survival and population numbers.

Non-lethal impacts: Cost vs benefit of anti predator responses (predator avoidance, alarm calls, higher vigilance) all of these could cause a reduction in energy levels through a limit of time spent foraging, increased energy output. In turn this impacts the individuals and the overall population:

Positives- Decreased risk of predation, less likely to be ambushed, work better as a unit.

Negatives- Lowered reproduction, stress, reduction in productivity.


Video: An example of monkey alarm calls to alert troop to a predator. Credit: Attenborough- The life of mammals. A BBC Earth documentary.

What is a landscape of fear?

The landscape of fear is a theory that explains the reason an animal moves around in their environment in a certain way is linked to predator avoidance strategies and can be altered by predator prey interactions.

Overview of the project

The monkeys observed in the PPP were Vervet monkeys and Samango monkeys.

Alarm calls of both species were analysed and it was found that their calls varied dependent on the area they were in and the type of threat observed e.g. the predators recorded in the study were snakes, eagles and leopards and for each one a different call was recorded.

leopard hunting
Male leopard hunting birds in flight. Credit: Matt Prophet

This different calls alert the group to the level of threat so they could react accordingly- this means that the group won’t have to waste energy reacting to a non-lethal low level threats in the same way as a lethal threat as they are able to differentiate between the two calls.

The results of the study showed that the Vervet and Samango monkeys experienced different landscapes of fear.

Vervet monkey facts

For the Vervet monkeys fear responses were primarily found to be exhibited in response to the presence of leopards, this was expected as leopards commonly prey on the Vervet monkeys- they exhibited this behaviour through predator avoidance in areas were leopards were spotted.

Vervet monkeys. Credit: The Human Evolution Blog

However the pattern of predator avoidance through spacial changes were not shown for eagles or snake whom are also predatory of the monkeys.

Similar to the Vervet monkeys, the Samango monkeys were more responsive to a certain species in this case the presence of eagle evoked the biggest behavioural changes.

samango monkey
Samango monkey. Credit: Wilkinson’s World

Samango monkey facts

This research aligns with the natural behaviours of the species and their habitat preferences, Vervet monkeys are semi-terrestrial so there for the leopards are seen as a bigger threat than the eagles which are a greater threat to the arboreal Samango monkeys.

When humans were present the monkeys range increased, some forging in lower tree branches and others further out of cover than when humans are not present.

This could be linked to humans being a deterrent to predators as well as the humans also acting as an early warning signal.

My opinion

These studies are extremely important for the future of conservation. Understanding the behavioural interactions within an ecosystem allows us to better conserve the area as a whole. I think that it’s clear to see the monkeys are extremely intelligent and are able to adapt their behaviours to allow the the greatest chance of survival in any given situation.

Has this affected my future plans?

I found the seminar very interesting even though primatology is not an area I have much experience with. I feel that gaining a better understanding of this subject area and the behaviour of primates could help me develop my skills in the field of conservation.

Further reading:

Newly published article in the Royal open science journal: Population dynamics and threats to an apex predator outside protected areas: implications for carnivore management

There is a blog running about the Predator and prey project, they post regular updates so if you want to know more please click here.


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