Welcome to the Jungle
By Brendan Flaherty
Published Jul 1, 2015 8:00 AM
From Lithuania to Los Angeles and on into the jungles of Costa Rica, a fascination with primates has taken Kotrina Kajokaite around the world.
As a girl in Lithuania, Kotrina Kajokaite ’11, M.A. ’14 saw a woman on television with a Lithuanian name and an orangutan on her lap. It was an eyeopening moment for the born animal lover, who remembers thinking, “Oh my gosh! You can be Lithuanian and do that?” At the time, Kajokaite didn’t know that the woman she’d seen was Birute Galdikas ’66, M.A. ’69, Ph.D. ’78, a prominent field primatologist commonly mentioned in the same breath as Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. She also didn’t know that one day, in 2009, at the age of 26, she’d join Galdikas for a month in the jungles of Indonesia.
Kajokaite is now a Ph.D. student who has researched white-faced capuchin monkeys at the Costa Rican field site of Professor Susan Perry, an evolutionary anthropologist and field primatologist (see feature: Monkey Business). And despite early influences, Kajokaite’s story, which already spans the globe, is completely her own.
Q: What are you studying right now?
A: I study anthropology. If you zoom in a little bit, I’m most interested in biological anthropology, and within biological anthropology, my interests are, first of all, primates. But I’m more generally interested in theoretical models of behavior and decision making.
Q: Did Galdikas inspire your studies of primates?
A: It would be unfair to say no, but I feel like there are these events that happen, and when you tell somebody that story it becomes the narrative of your life. So, yes, Birute does play a part, but . . . as a kid, I really liked animals. I read all kinds of animal books. I wanted to be a vet.
When I came to the States, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. I went to Santa Monica College for two years, and I was reading a lot of primatology books. [I kept reading about] Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas. They did this natural history, living with animals. They were the first three women to undertake that kind of study. Primatology has changed since then, but these women were so brave. And then I took an anthropology class and I realized you can study primates, you can study human behavior, you can think about them both.
Q: How did you meet Galdikas?
A: Birute had this program for volunteers at her site. I got admitted to UCLA, and I had a summer before I came. That year, Birute revived her program, and it was really cheap because they didn’t know how it was going to work. I applied while I was still working at a restaurant, and one day I saw this number calling from abroad. I thought, “This must be her. I must pick up, because otherwise I could lose my chance.” So I ran into this filthy, disgusting bathroom, and I picked up and it was Birute Galdikas. I don’t know what she asked. I just remember her saying, “I look forward to seeing you in Indonesia this summer.”
So I went there and got to be around orangutans and work in a really hot jungle. I thought, “I can do this. I like this. It’s hard, but I really like this.” And I got to meet Birute Galdikas, which was really cool, considering my trajectory.
Q: Why did you come to UCLA, and how did you become interested in white-faced capuchin monkeys?
A: I knew I wanted to do field primatology. I knew I wanted to go into the forest and observe animals in their natural habitats. The reason I picked UCLA was because I knew Susan Perry was here, and Joan Silk, at the time. Joan’s not a field primatologist, but she’s very prominent in the field. Susan taught a class the first quarter I was here, and I just started going to her office hours and talking to her. Back then, I knew more about apes. I think pretty much everyone who has any interest in primates starts with apes, because they’re so charismatic. But capuchins are really interesting because they have the biggest body-to-brain ratio among all primates except humans. They also have complex social lives, long juvenile periods, and form coalitions, just like us.
Q: What took you into the wilds to study?
A: The anthropology department here has a really amazing honors program. It’s like a mini master’s program. Susan was my adviser for a two-year project that I did on the long-term female relationships of capuchins. I studied at Susan’s field site for the summer. She usually wants people to go for a year, because it takes a long time to train them, but she made an exception. It’s hard there, but it worked for me. To create a field site like hers and to run it for 25 years — it’s really admirable. She’s an incredible role model, and she’s one of the best people in the field. The way she moves around the forest, how she doesn’t get tired. Most 20-year-olds can barely keep up. After I graduated, I went into the field for a year, but I ended up coming back after eight months because I was admitted to the grad school here. UCLA was the only place I applied, because I knew I wanted to keep working with this data set.
Q: What is unique about this data set?
A: It has 25 years of behavioral, genetic and demographic data of this one capuchin monkey population. That’s very rare anywhere in the world. One of the reasons I wanted to work on this project was because this length of time allows me to consider more theoretical questions about capuchin life histories. For example, a lot of what we think about animals is based on these one-year or few-month snapshots. But if you stay with any particular group of animals for a long period of time, you see that behaviors are plastic. A lot of things change. One year doesn’t tell you much about the variability of what can actually happen.
Q: What are your days like in the field?
A: We work for about 13 hours a day out there, and we are on our feet. We have 20-pound backpacks. It’s all a crazy adventure, with hill climbing and running and getting lost and wading through rivers. But the fact that you see these wild animals go about their business, and you know them as individuals, and you see this drama unfold in front of you — that, I think, is very rewarding, and you get hooked quickly.
Q: Have you observed anything that particularly surprised you?
A: Well, groups are defined units, and when they clash, they don’t mix. They either fight, or one runs and another chases, or they both run. Recently, two big groups — Abby’s Group and Rambo’s Group — came into contact [again], and within this turmoil, a [juvenile] who is a bit above a year old ended up in another group and stayed. ... The funny fact is that this little monkey — his name is Winslow Homer — he just blended in, and everyone was playing with him, everyone was excited about him. It’s not a true immigration, really — it’s an accident. But, for some reason, perhaps he’s very charming and very cute, the other group just thought: "You know what? You can stay. You can play with us". So, he’ll have this interesting life history.