Rafaela Takeshita: This conservationist certainly doesn’t monkey around

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Name: Rafaela Takeshita
Age: 29
Nationality: Brazilian
Occupation: Research Associate Center for International Collaboration and Advanced Studies in Primatology, Kyoto University

1. What first sparked your interest in primatology? In college I joined a project to study owl monkeys. While visiting the primate center I was amazed by how many different species there were, how little we know about them and how many are threatened.

2. What intrigues scientists about studying primates? Nonhuman primates are our closest relatives. They have high cognitive abilities and complex societies. Studying differences and similarities among species helps us to understand how we evolved.

3. Do you have any unusual research methods? To measure stress in primates, looking at feces to monitor hormone levels is a good alternative to something that would disturb the monkeys. We could use blood samples, but this would require capture and anesthesia, which are highly invasive.

4. What can we learn about ourselves from monkeys? We humans are not as special and unique as we might think. Nonhuman primates are very smart and capable of adjusting to changing environments.

5. Do primates have personalities? Although not my field of study, Japanese macaques have been reported to exhibit dominant (for example, independent, bullying or persistent) and anxious personalities.

6. Do monkeys have any special social skills? Monkeys are probably better than humans at handling “different individuals.” In Jigokudani Monkey Park, in Nagano Prefecture, one female called Mozu was famous for being born with deformed limbs, but she was well-accepted in her group and raised several offspring.

7. What has been your most memorable monkey experience? Koshima Island, off Miyazaki Prefecture, was the first time I saw wild snow monkeys. Unlike the neotropical monkeys I had seen in Brazil, these snow monkeys were very habituated. It was the first time I could take a close look at monkeys just enjoying their day.

8. Why do Japanese macaques enjoy a good soak in a hot spring? Japanese macaques spend more time bathing in hot springs during cold months and, when they do, their stress levels drop by 20 percent. Bathing is also a good way to stay warm and to get closer to their friends.

9. Where is your favorite human hot spring spot? I really enjoy Spa World in Osaka because you can soak in spas from places around the world, including a Roman one.

10. You’re a macaque: how do you feel about having your photo taken? Flash photography and photos taken from a short distance would be quite annoying. Perhaps that’s why one tourist once had his cellphone stolen by a young monkey.

11. How do you spend your days off? I just relax at home. I already do quite a lot of traveling for work, so it’s good to have some time to rest.

12. What’s on your desk at work? All I have in my workspace are my computer, my mug, a plant and many monkey figurines!

13. What do you do when you can’t sleep? Reading a paper, not electronic, book usually helps me.

14. Should we continue teaching apes, like Koko, human language? We can learn a lot of things from Koko, but we still don’t know how much human language can affect ape and monkey societies.

15. What do you miss most about Brazil? My family. Brazil is quite far from Japan, so there are not so many opportunities to see them.

16. Are there downsides to ecotourism? Certain ecotourist activities, like riding elephants, don’t respect animals. Before jumping into their “magical moment with animals,” every person should first think about that animal’s conditions.

17. If you weren’t a primatologist, what would you be? I would probably research other wild animals. Aquatic or flying animals fascinate me because their world is beyond our reach.

18. What book on nature or the environment should every person read? “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin is a must-read for anybody interested in animals.

19. How can humans help preserve the natural world? By knowing what harms the environment. Even small actions can have a big impact. For instance, stopping plastic consumption. This material ends up in the ocean and kills animal species.

20. Do have any words of wisdom for younger generations? Be curious, ask questions and spread knowledge. The biggest barrier to stopping humans from harming animals is money, so it is up to the next generation to come up with solutions.