With her quiet demeanor and obvious love for the animals of the primate order, Jane Goodall brought primatology into the mainstream, inspiring future primatologists all over the world. With a passion for animals and desire to continually learn and evolve, primatologists study our nearest cousins, the primate family. They learn all they can about the different species in the primate order, studying their biology, psychology and anthropology. Becoming a primatologist involves specialized schooling and training to become an expert in the primate culture and biological makeup. Typically, a primatologist chooses a species of primate to specialize in – primate species include apes, gorillas, lemurs, chimpanzees, orangutans and baboons.
Why a Primatologist’s Job Is Important
Depending on interests and specific training, a primatologist can study primates from various lenses. He may research them from a biological perspective, learning how the order of primates and all the species have evolved and developed. A primatologist can explore the apes' anthropological capacities, discovering primate family hierarchy and primate culture. Primates are similar to humans in their psychological function – some primatologists study how they think, feel and understand their world.
It’s more than a love for primates that drives primatologists in their study of these animals – they also want to learn all they can to help preserve the species and discover cures and treatments for both ape and human ailments. Because primates are so similar to humans, studying their biological makeup can provide insight into the human body and mind. Learning more about our primate cousins can help scientists discover cures for various diseases and conditions.
Primatologist research has led to numerous medical advances for humans. Studying baboons has helped create advancements in neonatal lung disease and epilepsy. Marmosets have been key in creating treatments for multiple sclerosis, while learning about Rhesus macaque monkeys has resulted in treatments for HIV and AIDS.
Other Responsibilities of an Animal Behaviorist
In settings like zoos and animal sanctuaries, the primatologist is the lead or senior team member and must manage teams of other primatologists or interns. Working in a lab, the primatologist runs experiments, does diagnostic testing and analyzes test results. Testing generally includes necropsy, biopsy, cytology and other pathology tests. Lab work can involve a large amount of paperwork, filing reports and creating written records of findings. They also perform some accounts payable/receivable and human resources functions in the lab.
During research and testing, the primatologist may discover new ways to treat primates for various illnesses and develop new techniques for studying them. They also can find treatments that work on humans, such as vaccines and stem cell technology. Primatologists help contribute to the National Institute on Aging (NIA) nonhuman primate tissue bank, an important source of tissue samples that scientists all over the world use for study and research. Other responsibilities of an animal behaviorist include giving lectures and leading workshops.
Education Required for Primatologist Career
The path to becoming a primatologist starts with a solid foundation in science courses, specifically biology, at the high school and college levels. At the minimum, employers require a bachelor’s degree in zoology, wildlife biology or a similar field, but most want to see a master’s degree or PhD. Other relatable degrees that offer pertinent knowledge and experience include environmental chemistry, geoscience, biology, anthropology and genomics. The education required for a primatologist career is a good mix of primatology and zoology disciplines and other liberal arts classes.
A handful of colleges and universities offer all levels of primatology degrees and specializations, including Emory College, Central Washington University and Miami University. Primatology-related degrees include numerous classes in anthropology, zoology and psychology, the three main components of the field. You can also expect to take classes in biology, philosophy and ethics. Along with traditional lecture classes, students take part in research labs and hands-on training. At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, for example, students visit the primates at the Columbus and Cincinnati zoos, learning from the zoo staff and getting to study the animals up close.
Beyond the Classroom
During schooling, an aspiring primatologist can gain valuable information through internships and co-ops. These generally take place at zoos, museums, veterinary hospitals, conservation centers and sanctuaries. These in-the-trenches experiences go beyond just textbook learning to provide hands-on, practical learning.
When a primatologist is ready to start the job search, the Primate Info Net website through the National Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a good place to start. It lists all available positions for primatologists, from professional positions to professorships to field-work roles. It also is a good resource for internship and volunteer opportunities.
Additional Learning Opportunities
Earning a degree as a primatologist doesn’t mean that the learning ends. The field of primatology is continually evolving and growing, with new information developing every day. To stay on top of developments, primatologists must continue to learn by taking continuing education classes; reading; contributing to research journals; and attending conferences, seminars and workshops held by other thought leaders in the field.
Several organizations provide these resources and tools to primatologists. The American Society for Primatologists, for example, sponsors yearly workshops and meetings, publishes its own research journal, and gives out research grants. The Primate Specialist Group, whose mission is to preserve all members of the primate order, offers numerous resources to primatologists, including publications and research tools. By becoming a member of these organizations, the primatologist can network with fellow researchers, have access to all the tools and resources available, and help support the mission of those groups.
What Primatologists Earn
The salary of a primatologist varies based on many factors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for zoologists and wildlife biologists, which primatologists fall under, was $62,290 as of 2017. This means that half of workers in this field make more than this, and half make less. The lowest 10 percent made $39,620 or less, and the top 10 percent garner a yearly salary of more than $99,700.
Areas and states with some of the highest salaries for primatologists include the District of Columbia ($97,930), Maryland ($96,460) and Connecticut ($86,270). Oklahoma ($40,080) and Kentucky ($43,110) have the lowest median salaries for primatologists. In the United States, California employs the most primatologists, with Washington, Oregon and Florida not far behind.
Depending on the employer, a primatologist may also receive benefits in addition to salary, such as health coverage, life insurance and a retirement account. Primatologists who travel typically receive some type of stipend to cover their expenses for lodging, food and transportation. College and university professors may get access to campus amenities like fitness facilities, libraries and dining halls.
Job Growth Trend
Job growth in the primatology field is expected to grow about 8 percent from 2016 to 2026. That’s slightly higher than the 7 percent expected job growth across all occupations. Growth depends mainly on government funding, as many primatologists work for national and state government organizations. Human activities that cause pollution and take over natural habits increase the amount of endangered species and the need for primatologists to study them.
Working Directly With Primates
Different types of organizations all over the United States and the world employ primatologists. Some work in zoos, habitats and sanctuaries, assisting with the day-to-day care of the animals. They work intimately with the animals, helping with feeding, cleaning out enclosures and caring for them when they’re sick. Just like a human needs yearly check-ups with a doctor, primates also require regular medical exams, in which the primatologist gives vaccines, does blood work and performs exams.
The primatologist on staff may answer questions from zoo or sanctuary visitors or lead tours of the facilities. While relatively safe, operating in this environment can mean potential exposure to sick animals and possible injury working with wild and unpredictable apes. Primatologists who work in zoos may put in lots of overtime hours, because the animals need continuous 24/7 care.
Working in the Wild
Others take a more hands-off approach and study primates in the wild, observing them as they live in their natural habitats. They watch them from a safe distance, taking notes on daily behaviors, mating rituals and eating habits. Sometimes a primatologist tracks the movement of families of primates using trackers and GPS systems. Working in the wild takes a primatologist all over the world, as primates live on nearly every continent, and into remote and far-flung areas of the planet, often far from civilization. Working in the wild also means contending with bad weather and harsh conditions. Primatologists out in the wild usually sleep in tents or even more primitive settings, and survive only on the supplies and food they can carry with them. Primatologists who work in the field generally work alone and must be comfortable with solitude and long hours by themselves.
Working in a Lab
Primatologists can also find work in laboratories and offices, examining primate DNA and other biological features. They examine and study primate blood samples, stool and urine, and other bodily fluids and tissues. After a primate passes away, primatologists perform autopsies to find cause of death and examine the body to learn more about then bodily systems. Working in a lab involves sitting at a desk or standing in the lab, and working on computers and other equipment. Lab workers typically work in teams, collaborating with fellow colleagues on a daily basis. Most primatologists in a lab work traditional full-time hours – nine to five, Monday through Friday. They may be called in for overtime hours during busy times.
Primatologists in Academia
In academia, primatologists take on professor roles, teaching the next generation of primatologists. Many primatologists enjoy this setting because it also allows them time to do research, write for research journals and advance their own learning. Duties in this capacity include creating and revising curriculum, acting as advisors to primatology students, and promoting their school’s primatology or zoology department. Colleges and universities often rely on grants and outside funding to help run their primatology and zoology departments. Primatologists on staff may be tasked with writing grant applications and managing that entire process.
Important Primatologist Qualities
Like other scientists, primatologists must have a desire to learn, study and research. They frequently tap into critical-thinking skills, drawing conclusions from studies and tests and solving problems. Because they frequently work on teams, a primatologist must have interpersonal skills and a team attitude.
It’s also imperative to have a working knowledge of computers and technology, as primatologists frequently use computer software and programs. Those who work in the wild rely heavily on geographic information systems (GIS) and GPS to find their way around and track the primates. Outdoor skills – like chopping wood, starting a fire and navigating rough terrain – are useful. You may also need to know how to operate tractors, boats, ATVs and other outdoor equipment.