Primate Ecology & Molecular Anthropology (PEMA) Lab
Our research mainly relies on stable isotope analysis and our focus is twofold, first on the ecology of African great apes and their habitats, and second the subsistence strategies and movements of prehistoric human populations.
We have a strong focus on establishing baseline isotope datasets, which are fundamental to most isotope projects.
Furthermore we employ direct observations and camera traps to study primate behavior in the wild, as well as tree climbing for arboreal sample collection.
does not check his emails regularly
lab intern (2018-2019)
bonobo weaning project
undergraduate researcher (2018-2019)
Jasmine (Aya) Abdul-Karim
undergraduate Koret Scholar (2018-2019)
undergraduate Koret Scholar (2018-2019)
tree climber, field assistant (2017)
Taï National Park
field assistant (2017)
Taï National Park
Rumen Fernandez Martin
field assistant, tree climbing assistant (2016)
Taï National Park
Dr. Simone Ban
field assistant (2015)
Taï National Park
CURRENT RESEARCH PROJECTS
our current research endeavors and the people behind them
Strontium isoscape of equatorial Africa
Vicky M. Oelze
The analysis of the stable isotopes of strontium (87Sr/86Sr) is a well-established tool in archaeological science to trace back the geological origin of an organism, e.g. where a person was born and raised. Several studies have measured the 87Sr/86Sr values in the remains of humans subjected to slavery in the Americas. However, these studies were unable to pinpoint human origins beyond the identification that some individuals were born somewhere in Africa because spatial 87Sr/86Sr data does not exist for Africa. Environmental strontium isotope mapping of equatorial Africa provide a solid foundation for forensic investigations of historic human displacement during the transatlantic slave trade. This new map will also be relevant for wildlife foresenics, as isotopes are a increasingly used method to identify hotspots of illegal poaching activity. This project has the potential to be have significant impact on the archaeology of Africa and the transatlantic slave trade, as well as for wildlife conservation.
We are generously funded through the Webster Foundation and are collaborating on this project with the Pan African Programme (http://panafrican.eva.mpg.de/
former Primatology Department, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany)
Cu, Fe, Zn and Sr isotopes as bio-markers of primate life history
Vicky M. Oelze and Renee Boucher
While Strontium (Sr) isotopes have been used for two decades to reconstruct the mobility patterns of prehistoric people and even fossil hominins, the isotopic measurement of other elements with large mass have only more recently become technically feasible to be of use in anthropology. Initial work on Copper and Iron (Cu and Fe) stable isotope suggests that there are significant differences between human males and females, presumably due to different metabolism and function of these elements in female reproductive physiology. The isotope ratios of Zink (Zn) measured in tooth enamel have recently been described to correspond to the trophic level in the food web, making this element potentially extremely valuable for paleodietary reconstructions in fossils. We measure 87Sr/86Sr in enamel samples from the Ta chimpanzee skeletal collection to reconstruct female mobility and potentially identify the area to which they were native. We measure Cu and Fe isotopes to test differences in these isotope systems between male and female chimpanzees to test the utility of this approach to differentiate between the sexes of fossil hominoids. Finally we test the use of Zn isotopes to address questions of tropic level and meat consumption.
We are collaborating with Roman Wittig (Primatology Department, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany) for access to the Tai chimpanzee skeletal collection, and with Klervia Jaouen (Géosciences Environnement Toulouse) on the analytics of Cu, Fe and Zn isotopes.
bonobo weaning behavior
Vicky M. Oelze, with help of Isabella O'Neal
Weaning, the process from breastfeeding to solid food intake in infants, is an important and critical phase in primate ontogeny which is extremely difficult to monitor in elusive wild primate species. Particularly in great apes such as bonobos (Pan paniscus), observations on breastfeeding and weaning are limited due to the arboreal nature of this species. Stable isotope analysis has proven to be a powerful tool to assess changes in diets of elusive animals over time. In this project we employ stable isotope analysis to indirectly and non-invasively monitor the process of ceasing breastmilk in the diet of wild infant bonobos by analyzing fecal samples from wild bonobos of the LuiKotale Bonobo Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. By monitoring the weaning process throughout infant ontogeny in males and females, we will be able to address questions on sex biased maternal investment in wild bonobos.
This project is a collaborative venture between the PEMA lab, Barbara Fruth and Gottfried Hohmann representing the LuiKotale Bonobo Project (at the Liverpool John Moores University, UK and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany).
chimpanzee termite fishing ecology
Seth Phillips, advised by Vicky Oelze
Seth is studying the relationship between chimpanzees and Macrotemes termites in the Isaa valley of Tanzania. He investigates how much of the termites' complex ecology and reproductive cycle effects the chimpanzees ability to successfully fish for termites across the seasons. How do chimpanzees know when it is a good day to fish? And how do termites respond to predation by chimpanzees and does that vary over time?
Seth will examine whether the swarming behavior of the Macrotermes alates provides an ephemeral opportunity for chimpanzees to effectively termite-fish at Issa and beyond. Seth will experimentally replicate termite-fishing behavior at a selection of Macrotermes mounds. From long-term camera trap footage Seth will additionally assess the timing, the duration/intensity and the mode of chimpanzees visiting and re-visiting termite mounds.
We are collaborating on this project with Alex Piel and the GMERC (http://gmerc.org/).
population dynamics, human mobility and dietary change in the ancient Peruvian Andes
co-advised by Lars Fehren-Schmitz & Vicky M. Oelze
In the northern Andes, environmental constraints have limited research on prehistoric population interaction and human-landscape relationships. As a result, there is a limited understanding of how ancient people in regions like the “Andean-Amazonian Divide” interacted with each other, how they utilized the landscape, and how these various aspects of daily life contributed to daily choices. Eden’s dissertation research reconstructs individual life-histories and population dynamics of people in the Peruvian Andes living under periods of environmental and/or socioeconomic change. She uses a combination of isotopic (strontium, carbon and nitrogen) and ancient DNA analyses to enhance and broaden the study of under-researched archaeological communities of Peru.
This project is a joint venture of the Human Paelogenomics lab and the PEMA lab at UCSC.
canopy isotope project
Vicky M. Oelze and Brynn Lowry
This project at Taï National Park, Côte d’Ivoire, seeks for biochemical markers of primate niche occupation within the forest canopy, which can in the future be used to reconstruct the dietary niche of extinct and fossil primate species, including early fossil hominins. We will provide a basis for future work in the field of niche differentiation in sympatric primates within forest canopies, primarily by investigating the patterns in carbon and oxygen stable isotopes within the different strata of the forest canopy itself, more specifically within leaves growing at different heights of the forest canopy.
Previous isotopic work on arboreal primates in Taï (Krigbaum et al 2013) has shown that arboreal primates exhibit different carbon and oxygen stable isotope values according to their niche occupancy within the different strata of the forest canopy. This pattern is highly likely related to a consistent gradient in the isotope values of plant foods growing at different canopy heights; a hypothesis which remained yet untested in the plant foods themselves. This project focuses on isotopic analyses of leaves crowing at different canopy heights of the forest, but will also measure nutritional properties (%protein) in leaves to assess at least one aspect of nutritional differences within the tree canopy.
This project is carried out with the support of Roman M. Wittig (Primatology Department, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany). We are collaborating with Jarmila Pittermann, plant scientist here at UCSC, on the underlying plant physiology effecting isotopic fractionation.
"a bite of chimp habitat"
Vicky M. Oelze with the PanAf and the MPWC
Stable isotope ratios have been measured in a range of fossil teeth from early African hominins and great apes from Africa and Asia. Isotope data suggests that many fossil hominin taxa in Africa were adapted to open environments and depended highly on C4 plant food resources. Although savanna chimpanzees are frequently used to model the ecology of these fossil species based on the biochemistry of their tooth enamel, there is little dental enamel isotope data from different chimpanzee populations, and none from those inhabiting savanna woodlands, more similar to environments presumably inhabited by fossil hominins. The same can be said about dental microtexture analysis. We close these gaps by providing a combined isotope and dental microwear dataset from forest and savanna chimpanzees and by integrating comprehensive information on their habitats. We predict that canopy cover and habitat density will be differently be reflected in dental carbon and oxygen stable isotope ratios. Differences in the biomechanical properties of plant foods between savanna and forest habitats (van Casteren et al. 2018) will also be reflected in distinct microtexture patterns. By integrating detailed habitat and climate information to the dental ecology data we will provide a completely new framework for the interpretation of isotopic and microwear data from fossil primates, including hominins.
Project PI Vicky Oelze (UCSC), with Gaelle Bocksberger (PanAf, MPI-EVA), Ellen Schulz-Kornas, Kornelius Kupczik and Adam van Casteren (MPWC and MPI-EVA).
savanna termite isotope ecology
Vicky M. Oelze, with the PanAf and Seth Phillips
Among the most plausible explanations for the consistent C4 plant contribution to hominin diets across African regions is the consumption of C4 sedges, as well as the frequent consumption of C4 dependent termite species. Sponheimer et al (2005) showed that several sedges and also termite species indeed reveal C4 signatures, at least in samples from South Africa. With a single study in Senegal, there is hardly any evidence from other regions in Africa that termites target for C4 plants, and what the consequences from chimpanzee isotope ecology are is still an open question. In this study on Macrotermes termites from six different savanna chimpanzee habitats we want to investigate if termites target for C4 plants in habitats selected by chimpanzees today, assuming that environmental conditions favorable to chimpanzees would also been suitable for hominins in the past.
the demographics of termite fishing chimpanzees
Victoria Colins and Vicky M. Oelze
Wild chimpanzees across Africa fish for termites using complex tool kits made of sticks or other parts of vegetation. We still little understand how this complex cultural behavior and knowledge is transferred from one generation to the next via social learning. Using camera trap footage data from the Issa chimpanzees (GMERC), assistant Victoria Collins is investigating sex differences in chimpanzee termite mount visitation rates and how long females stay actively fishing at termite mounts compared to males, particularly when they are with their dependent offspring.
We are collaborating on this project with Alex Piel and the GMERC (http://gmerc.org/).
latest update 8/12/2020
In the pipeline
Lowry, B.E., Wittig, R.M., Pittermann J., Oelze, V.M. (in review): Stratigraphy of stable isotope ratios and leaf structure within a tropical rainforest canopy in West Africa: Implications for primate feeding and isotope ecology. Oecologia.
Washburn E., Nesbitt J., Ibarra B., Fehren-Schmitz L., Oelze V.M. (in review): A strontium isoscape for the Callejon de Conchucos region of highland Peru and its application to Andean archaeology. PlosOne.
Seth Phillips, Rudolf H. Scheffrahn, Alex Piel, Fiona Stewart, Anthony Agbor, Gregory Brazzola, Alexander Tickle, Volker Sommer, Paula Dieguez, Erin G. Wessling, Mimi Arandjelovic, Hjalmar Kühl, Christophe Boesch, Vicky M. Oelze (in review): Limited evidence of C4 plant consumption in mound building Macrotermes termites from savanna woodland chimpanzee sites. PlosOne
Bocksberger G., Schulz-Kornas E., van Casteren A., Dieguez P., Agbor A., Deschner T., Goedmakers A., Granjon A-C., Kadam P., Kambi M., Leinert V., Meier A.C., Lapuente J., Piel A., Van Schijndel J., Sommer V., Stewart F., Ton E., Wittig R.M., Krüger S., Kupczik K., Arandjelovic M., Boesch C., Kühl H.S., Oelze VM (in prep): Dental paleoproxies in extant chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) relate to climate and vegetation characteristics across tropical Africa. PNAS
Oelze V.M., O’Neil I., Broomand N., Schulz-Kornas E. (in prep): Fecal matter matters: biases in primate fecal isotope analysis and novel recommendations for sample preparation.
Oelze, V. M., Wittig R.M., Lemoine S., Kuehl H.S., Boesch C. (2020): How isotopic signatures relate to meat consumption in wild chimpanzees: A critical reference study from Taï National Park, Côte d’Ivoire. Journal of Human Evolution 146, 102817
Oelze, V. M., Percher A., Nsi Akoué G. , El Ksabi N., Willaume E. , Charpentier M.J.E. (2020): Seasonality and inter-individual variation in mandrill feeding ecology revealed by stable isotope analyses of hair and blood. American Journal of Primatology 82 (12), https://doi.org/10.1002/ajp.23206
Washburn, E., Tomasto E., Nesbitt J., Burger R, Oelze V.M., Fehren-Schmitz L (2020): Carbon and nitrogen isotopic evidence of diet among individuals interred at the Late Preceramic Period/Initial Period Site of La Galgada, Peru. Journal of Archaeological Science- Reports 31, 102309
Wessling E.G., Oelze V.M., Eshuis H., Pruetz J.D., Kühl H.S. (2019): Stable isotope variation in savanna chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) indicate avoidance of energetic challenges through dietary compensation at the limits of the range. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 168 (4), 665-675. DOI:10.1002/ajpa.23782
van Casteren A., Oelze, V.M., Angedakin S., Kalan A.K., Kambi M., Boesch C., Kuehl H.S., Langergraber K.E., Piel A.K., Stewart F.A., Kupczik K. (2018): Food mechanical properties and isotopic signatures in forest versus savannah dwelling eastern chimpanzees. Communications Biology 1 (1), #109
Muenster A., Knipper C., Oelze V.M., Nicklisch N., Stecher M., Schlenker B., Ganslmeier R., Fragata M., Friederich S., Dresely V., Hubensack V., Brandt G., Doehle J., Vach W., Schwarz R., Metzner-Nebelsick C., Meller H., Alt K.W. (2018): 4000 years of human dietary evolution in Central Germany, from the first farmers to the first elites. PlosOne. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0194862
Scheffrahn, R.H., Bourguignon T., Bordereau C., Hernandez-Aguilar R.A., Oelze V.M., Dieguez P., Sobotnik, J., Pascual-Garrido, A. (2017): White-gutted soldiers: simplification of the digestive tube for a non-particulate diet in higher Old World termites (Isoptera: Termitidae). Insectes Sociaux,1-9.
Oelze, V. M., Fahy, G. E., Hohmann, G., Robbins, M. M., Leinert, V., Lee, K., Eshuis, H., Seiler, N., Wessling, E. G., Head, J. S., Boesch, C., & Kuehl, H. S. (2016). Comparative isotope ecology of African great apes. Journal of Human Evolution, 101, 1-16.
Crowley, B., Reitsema, L., Oelze, V. M., & Sponheimer, M. (2016). Advances in primate stable isotope ecology-achievements and future prospects. American Journal of Primatology, 78(10), 995-1003.
Special Issue in the American Journal of Primatology, co-edited by Brooke E. Crowley, Laurie J. Reitsema, Vicky M. Oelze and Matt Sponheimer (2016): "Advances In Primate Stable Isotope Ecology"
Mundry, R., and Oelze, V. M. (2016). Who is who matters - the effects of pseudoreplication in stable isotope analysis. American Journal of Primatology, 78(10), 1017-1030.
Oelze, V. M. (2016). Reconstructing temporal variation in great ape and other primate diets: A methodological framework for isotope analyses in hair. American Journal of Primatology, 78(10), 1004-1016.
Oelze, V. M., Douglas, P. H., Stephens, C. R., Behringer, V., Surbeck, M., Richards, M. P., Fruth, B., & Hohmann, G. (2016). The steady state great ape? Long term isotopic records reveal the effects of season, social rank and reproductive status on bonobo feeding behaviour. PlosOne, 11(9): e0162091.
Oelze, V. M., Head, J. S., Robbins, M. M., Richards, M. P., & Boesch, C. (2014). Niche differentiation and dietary seasonality among sympatric gorillas and chimpanzees in Loango National Park (Gabon) revealed by stable isotope analysis. Journal of Human Evolution, 66(1), 95-106.
Nehlich, O., Oelze, V. M., Jay, M., Conrad, M., Staeuble, H., Teegan, W.-R., & Richards, M. P. (2014). Sulphur isotope ratios of multi-period archaeological skeletal remains from central Germany: A dietary and mobility study. Anthropologie: international journal of the science of man, 52(1), 15-33.
Oelze, V. M., Nehlich, O., & Richards, M. P. (2012). "There's no place like home" - No isotopic evidence for mobility at the Early Bronze Age cemetery of Singen, Germany. Archaeometry, 54(4), 752-778.
Oelze, V. M., Koch, J. K., Kupke, K., Nehlich, O., Zaeuner, S., Wahl, J., Weise, S. M., Rieckhoff, S., & Richards, M. P. (2012). Multi-isotopic analysis reveals individual mobility and diet at the Early Iron Age Monumental Tumulus of Magdalenenberg, Germany. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 148(3), 406-421.
Deschner, T., Fuller, B. T., Oelze, V. M., Boesch, C., Hublin, J.-J., Mundry, R., Richards, M. P., Ortmann, S., & Hohmann, G. (2012). Identification of energy consumption and nutritional stress by isotopic and elemental analysis of urine in bonobos (Pan paniscus). Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 26(1), 69-77.
Oelze, V. (2012). Mobility and diet in Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age Germany: evidence from multiple isotope analysis. PhD Thesis, Department of Human Origins, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden Univ., Leiden.
Oelze, V. M., Fuller, B. T., Richards, M. P., Fruth, B., Surbeck, M., Hublin, J.-J., & Hohmann, G. (2011). Exploring the contribution and significance of animal protein in the diet of bonobos by stable isotope ratio analysis of hair. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(24), 9792-9797.
Oelze, V. M., Siebert, A., Nicklisch, N., Meller, H., Dresely, V., & Alt, K. W. (2011). Early Neolithic diet and animal husbandry: stable isotope evidence from three Linearbandkeramik (LBK) sites in Central Germany. Journal of Archaeological Science, 38(2), 270-279.
meet our collaborators and their projects
(formerly Ugalla Primate Project)
We are collaborating with GMERC on numerous projects on chimpanzee termite fishing behavior, termite ecology and camera trap data. The GMERC project is located in the savanna/Miombo woodland landscape of the Issa Valley in Tanzania, East Africa. Research at GMERC focuses on the behavior, ecology, and conservation of the wildlife and especially primates that live across the Greater Mahale Ecosystem.
Taï Chimpanzee Project (TCP)
Since 2015, Vicky Oelze is collaborating with TCP on the stable isotope ecology of the Taï chimpanzees and Taï forest. Our main interest is the relationship between meat eating behavior in the Taï chimpanzees and the stable isotope ratios of hair. In another project we investigate the stratification in plant stable isotope ratios within the forest canopy. The Taï Chimpanzee Project is located in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, and has been established over thirty years ago by Christophe and Hedwige Boesch. Today the project is co-directed by Roman Wittig and Catherine Crockford and is following three habituated neighboring communities of chimpanzees.
LuiKotale Bonobo Project
Since 2009, Vicky Oelze is collaborating with Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth on the isotope ecology of the LuiKotale bonobos. This collaboration is still ongoing with a current project on bonobo infant weaning behavior. The site, with today 2 habituated bonobo groups and another under habituation, is located close to the Western border of Salonga National Park in DRC, which belongs to the largest remaining forest blocks in Africa.
UCSC Human Paleogenomics Lab
The Human Paleogenomics Lab directed by Prof. Lars Fehren-Schmitz investigates how culture and biology have shaped human genomic diversity, demography and health, with a strong focus on the prehistory and peopling of the Americas. We collaborate on questions related to the subsistence and habitat use of prehistoric people in South America.
Max Planck Weizmann Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology (MPWC)
The MPWC is part of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The goal of the MPWC is to better understand human evolution by drawing on expertise from archaeology, anthropology, biology, physics and material sciences. The MPWC in Leipzig focuses on the evolution of the human masticatory apparatus. We are collaborating with group leader Kornelius Kupczik and his team on the dental ecology of chimpanzees by combining the MPWC expertise in dental surface texture analysis and the experience of the PEMA lab with isotope analysis in extant chimpanzees.
UCSC Isotope Facilities
Research on the ecology of living primates can get a very different perspective if one is high up in the trees. Trust us, it's a fact! Will Koomjian, certified arborist, tree climber, and undisputed tree nerd, instructs and assists researchers worldwide in accessing the crowns of the canopy for their projects. Will worked with Vicky in Taï National Park in 2015. In the field season of 2017, Vicky worked with another stellar arborist, the late James Luce who passed away in summer 2020 and is dearly missed. The publication Lowry et al. (in review) is dedicated to James. (https://www.arborcanada.com/instructors/Luce-James/)
Classes in and around the lab
Evolution of Human Diet
fall quarter 2017, 2018, 2020
This lecture discusses the evolution of human diet and subsistence from a biological anthropological perspective, including evidence on past human behaviors revealed by paleoanthropology, archaeology, archaeometry, primatology, genetics and osteology. It will introduce the students to the main hypothesis related to the evolution of dietary behavior from our early ancestors up to the transition to agriculture and animal husbandry, from man the hunted - to man the hunter - to man the cook – to man the farmer.
Primate Behavior & Ecology
spring quarter 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020
This lecture covers the fundamentals of the ecology, behavior and evolution of non-human primates, and how to study these in the wild. The topics encompassed include the human perception of primates, primate life history, feeding ecology, socioecology, concepts of group living and social behavior, communication, endocrinology, mating systems and kin selection. Moreover the course will focus on great apes, their societies, culture and cognition.
Stable Isotope Ecology
spring quarter 2018, spring quarter 2019, summer session 2019
This combination of lectures and now also hands-on lab applications provides students with a comprehensive overview of stable isotope research in fossil hominoids, prehistoric human populations and non-human primates. We discover the wide application of isotopic research in biological anthropology, bioarcheology, primatology, forensics and wildlife ecology.
Forensic Anthropology & Bioarchaeology
This hands-on lab class introduces students to the classic bioanthropological methods to determine age, sex, ancestry, body stature and health in human skeletal remains, such as modern forensic cases or archaeologically recovered material.
Advanced Readings in Biological Anthropology
aka Journal Club
This class is a small discussion round of PIs, grad students and postdocs that focuses on key research articles in our discipline. Advanced readings are novel or seminal journal articles suggested by the instructor or the participating graduate students. These papers will be relevant to biological anthropology in general, archaeological sciences or human evolution and we will particularly focus on articles employing isotope biogeochemistry and ancient DNA analytics. We will read, summarize and critically discuss research articles and rotate with the responsibilities of presenting the key findings of each article. New methodological approaches are also of major interest in this class and the selection of method papers is strongly encouraged.
Undergrads: please contact Vicky if you are a senior and highly interested in actively and consistently joining our biweekly discussion rounds.
Chimpanzee Video Coding Team
In this project we code camera trap video footage from the Issa Valley in Tanzania, as savanna chimpanzee field site we are collaborating with via GMERC (Greater Mahale Ecosystem Research and Conservation, see collaborations). The camera traps are mainly triggernd by movements of wild animals, including wild chimpanzees. Our task is to go through the video material, identify animal species and their behaviors, and entering the information into excel. We intensively discuss the identification of age, sex and individuals from clips showing chimpanzees. We meet at least once per week and discuss our progress and problems, and share our video highlights with each other. Actively participating student can obtain credits for 2-5 for this independent study.
Undergrads: please contact Vicky if you are interested in joining our team. Students that have taken ANTH106 are preferred.
What's happening in the PEMA lab?
Our new isotope study on mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) from Gabon made it on the cover of AJP! Find out more about the project at: http://www.projetmandrillus.com/
Chimpanzee video coding team 2019 (several folks missing on this pic). We are turning this independent study group into a lab class in Winter 2020
Stable Isotope Ecology (ANTH 107B) class 2019 in the "field"
successful and fun field sampling tour with both grads and undergrads; we went and explored upper campus forest and found many interesting plants, animals and fungi, which we prepared for stable isotope analysis
fume hood - Lab safety first!
Dec 19th 2018: Good to know that a human dummy is good to use my brand new fume hood without inhaling toxic gases. Hope this level of safety also applies to real humans made of flesh & blood. Lab safety first!
Seth in the field 2017/2018
video by the GMERC team
Field work is what you make of it!