Tracking the Forest People

Tracking the Forest People

In the rainforests of Borneo, Erin Vogel '95 studies a group of orangutans in hopes of protecting this dwindling species.

By Adriana Nordin Manan '07 | Photos by Joram Berlowtiz, Jose Florez, Livia Haag, Tremain Jones, Adriano Lamiero, and Erin Vogel.
Illustrations by Robert P. Hernandez

Erin Vogel '95 in the rainforest where she tracks orangutans to study their diet and habitat.
Erin Vogel '95 in the rainforest where she tracks orangutans to study their diet and habitat.

“He’s the most dominant male in the forest, and he shows it,” Vogel said later. “Once, I had to lie on the forest floor on my stomach, covering my head for two hours while he stood six feet above me, shaking branches and making vocalizations.”

An associate researcher in the department of anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz, Vogel spends half the year at the million-acre Mawas Reserve in central Kalimantan with its resident population of orangutans (“people of the forest” in Malay).

When in the field, she pays close attention to the diet choices that orangutans make and how these compare to the diet of populations in other sites.

Information gleaned by this research could be crucial as logging and development shrink the orangutans’ habitat and as scientists—including Kalimantan researchers taught by Vogel—work to better understand the apes and their needs. An estimated 50,000 Bornean orangutans remain, as the species continues to decline.

But Vogel’s work could also shed light on human evolution.

"Even in a two- hundred- student class in intro biology, it was clear she was exceptional."

-Herb Wilson, Leslie Brainerd Arey Professor of Biosciences
“Erin’s work, that looks at these broad, big-picture questions across massive geographic scale, is a major contribution to animal behavior and primatology,” said Nathaniel Dominy, Vogel’s colleague at UCSC and principal investigator at the university’s Dominy Lab for Sensory and Foraging Ecology. “Since she is in the anthropology department, it is important to relate these data to questions of human evolution, and in this regard orangutans are really interesting, as they have teeth most similar to humans among all living primates today. There must have been strong parallels between what was eaten by earlier humans and orangutans in the present, and from Erin’s work we find what the exact mechanical characteristics of those kinds of food are.”

Since young orangutans live with their mothers for an average of eight years, the socialization process and its role in determining dietary choices is part of Vogel’s research into geographic variations in orangutan diet selection.

“Even when the same types of food are available in various sites, each population’s diet is different, and we want to find out the reasons why,” she said. “We’re working to identify the importance of social learning in diet selection, whether they select resources based on nutritional quality or what their parents have taught them.”

To do that, Vogel trails Niko through the rainforest—on a path that really began on Mayflower Hill.

Vogel’s life as a scientist began when she was a Colby first-year and decided to try a class in ornithology taught by Herb Wilson, the Leslie Brainerd Arey Professor of Biosciences. “Even in a two-hundred-student class in intro biology, it was clear she was exceptional,” Wilson said.

That introduction began a research collaboration that lasted throughout her remaining years on Mayflower Hill. As Wilson’s research assistant, Vogel banded chickadees in Perkins Arboretum, and collaborated with Wilson on a study of sandpiper feeding habits, a project that culminated with an article they co-authored. “Working with Herb definitely turned me on to fieldwork and biology. Although I had always known that I would be a biology major, this solidified the fact that I wasn’t going to be a premed major as my parents had wanted,” Vogel said, laughing.

The Tuanan research station where Erin Vogel '95 is based with other researchers studying the orangutans of Borneo.
The Tuanan research station where Erin Vogel '95 is based with other researchers studying the orangutans of Borneo.

Vogel’s research with Wilson on the feeding ecology of birds piqued her interest in the impact a species’ food sources have on its behavior. Abroad junior year in Costa Rica, she studied primates. After Colby, she worked at a Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship Program (MAPS) site in the Big Sur region of California for a few months, until a job opportunity came up in Costa Rica to study birds. It was in Costa Rica that Vogel was introduced to primates, and by the time she was applying to graduate school she knew that she wanted to study birds or monkeys.

Ever the protégé, she consulted Wilson about her decision to discontinue her study of birds, slightly apprehensive that he might be disappointed. He laughed when reminded of the conversation, in which he told his former assistant he was thoroughly pleased that she was continuing her work as a field biologist. With that encouragement, Vogel enrolled in a master’s program at SUNY Stony Brook in 1997, switching to a Ph.D. program a year later. The subject: the ecological basis of aggression in white-faced capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica.

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