Anthropology graduate student McKensey Miller hopes research can aide chimpanzee conservation
McKensey Miller, a graduate student Texas State’s Department of Anthropology, has always been interested in animal behavior. Throughout her undergraduate coursework in zoology and environmental studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this interest became more specifically focused on primate behavior.
As she became aware of current threats to the animal populations, such as deforestation, habitat fragmentation and climate change, Miller knew she wanted to conduct research on how primates were impacted by these environmental changes. Her interest led her to pursue her graduate studies at Texas State, under the mentorship of Dr. Jill Pruetz, professor and the director of the Fongoli Savanna Chimpanzee Project.
Miller’s own research, which she presented at this year’s 3MT University Final, focuses on the Fongoli chimpanzee community in Senegal. Due to the intensely hot and dry climate, Miller became interested in how the chimps were able to maintain their body temperatures in such extreme conditions. She focused specifically on the different habitats available to them, various shade resources, and even their own changes in behavior. Miller used a thermal imaging camera to measure the surface temperature of the animals in each habitat. She also investigated if chimps would be able to continue thermoregulating in predicted future climates. To answer that question, she used a platform called Niche Mapper to create a digital model of a chimp and placed it into a virtual environment that replicated predicted environmental conditions in the future.
When asked about the impact of her research, Miller says she is focusing mostly on conservation as the western chimpanzees are critically endangered and populations in Senegal are threatened by artisanal mining. Certain studies have estimated that there are only 500 left in Senegal, and she hopes that the results of her study will show the importance of protecting specific habitats, such as gallery forests, that help the chimps survive.
The importance of Miller’s research is demonstrated by the financial backing it has garnered. Last year, she received the National Science Graduate Research Fellowship, as well as the Texas State Graduate College, Texas State Anthropology Department and the Step Up for State Fundraiser.
Miller hopes to grow her research on how primates are adapting to live in their environments and how they will be affected by climate change in order to help make better conservation decisions, and she would like to continue studying the Fongoli chimpanzees and possibly expand her research into other primate species. She plans on attending the University of Michigan in the fall to obtain a Ph.D. in anthropology. Her No. 1 wish for her research is to protect as many of the habitats for these chimps as possible to help them survive in the future.