My research focuses on the social behavior of animals, particularly primates.  My interest in these animals arises from the fact that they are social in a particular way, which involves the establishment of long-lasting social units and individualized social relationships.  Primates share these characteristics with some other social vertebrates, like cetaceans, elephants, hyenas and some birds. 

At the most general level, I want to understand how sociality relates to behavioral patterns and ecological constraints.   As a biologist,  I approach these questions from an evolutionary perspective.  However, while the evolution of behavior is a major interest, my research has also focused on the ecological basis of social variation, as well as behavioral mechanisms that allow social ties to persist in the face of competition and conflict, and also social development.

Areas of enduring interest include (i) social cooperation, (ii) demography and group size, (iii) mating strategies and mating systems, (iv) socioecology, or ecological explanations of variable social organization, and (v) the development of social relations. Longterm study of a single population of long-lived animals, which I've now done for >35 years, leads also to an interest in life history variation. In the past, I have also studied mechanisms involved in maintaining group integrity (especially conflict resolution, ownership conventions, and grooming) and social and ecological relations between sympatric species, and I remain interested in these topics as well.

My "lab" is a fieldsite in Kenya, where we use direct observation of our study subjects to sample their behavior. In the past, I also worked on captive animals, conducting behavioral experiments.   I am not an exclusive devotée of field vs. lab, or observation vs. experimentation: different questions demand different kinds of study. I do wish field experiments were easier! MCDerek observing

I direct the Kakamega Monkey Project in the Kakamega Forest, western Kenya, where I began a long-term study of forest-dwelling monkeys in 1979.   My students and I have combined behavioral fieldwork with genetic, endocrinological and nutritional analyses, undertaken in the laboratory, to gain a deeper understanding of the behavior of our subjects. 

I have also had some interchange with human psychologists: I am interested in seeing how an evolutionary view of social competence jives with human social cognition and social behavior.  My main focus has been on conflict management – something that all social animals (including humans) need to do.

No one can work on forest wildlife in Africa and remain unconcerned about conservation issues.  Most of my work does not focus on conservation-related questions per se.  Nonetheless, I  have been involved in community-level efforts to conserve the forest, and some of my students have tackled questions about variation in primate population density or effects of human-induced habitat change on behavior. I am also certain that our long-term research presence at the study site has contributed to the safe-guarding of at least a portion of the Kakamega Forest.


For many years, I was closely involved with KEEP (Kakamega Environmental Education Program), a registered community-based organization in western Kenya.  KEEP was started by Wilberforce Okeka, a local man with an 8th grade education who is devoted to making a difference in people’s attitudes about the forest near their homes, with the longer term goal of ensuring the forest’s survival into the coming decades.  KEEP’s founding philosophy followed the Senegalese ecologist, Baba Dioum, who said: "ln the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught".

KEEP’s goals included educating local people, especially children and adolescents, who live in and around the Kakamega Forest about the fabulous ecosystem in their ‘backyard’, and to teach them the importance of conserving it.  Teachers were local people working on a voluntary basis, who provided the young with positive role models concerned with conservation.   KEEP also promoted lifestyle changes that relieve pressure on the forest, including tree planting, income generation from cultivation of forest products and tourism, and fuel-efficient cooking technology.  Some of this work involved collaboration with local conservation, research and service institutions in Kenya.                                                       KEEP skit

While KEEP is an independent organization, it has functioned in collaboration with the Kenya Forest Service and the Kenya  Wildlife Service (two  parastatal organizations).  The project served as a model for a community-initiated effort that helps to carry out national goals.

I have helped KEEP in two main ways.  First, I advised KEEP members in their development of a children’s education program.  Second, I raised funds to to construct conservation education centers (three so far) and to provide educational materials (a library of books, magazines and teacher’s manuals, microscopes, puppets, etc). KEEP construction

Although KEEP was a pioneer in community-based conservation around the Kakamega Forest, other community based organizations are springing up as well now, which is a good sign. I hope to continue assisting where I can.