Data Collection in Field Primatology: A Renewed Look at Measuring Foraging Behaviour

  • Amanda D. MelinEmail author
  • Shasta E. Webb
  • Rachel E. Williamson
  • Kenneth L. Chiou
Part of the Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects book series (DIPR)


Studies of wild animals reveal how foraging activities unfold in natural contexts and are essential for understanding the evolutionary pressures that shape diet, feeding behaviour, and niche divergence. Yet, observing free-ranging animals presents many challenges including limited visibility and difficulties drawing comparisons across individuals. Here, we review and discuss methods for recording foraging behaviours—in particular, feeding efficiency, activity budgets, and modes of sensory investigation—of diurnal, group-living primates. When the goal of the research is to compare feeding efficiencies, we suggest flexible use of focal animal follows that maximize ability to record the intake rate and food investigation sequences of different individuals in the same food patch. In particular, we suggest observers aim to record a set number of ingest events under conditions of good visibility, while still applying appropriate stopping rules, rather than to complete a focal follow of a set duration. In addition, we consider the benefits and challenges of different methods of data collection, including scan sampling, all occurrence sampling, and focal animal follows, for studying foraging activity budgets and other aspects of feeding ecology. Finally, we discuss strategies for collecting different types of data to integrate goals of long-term (multi-year or multi-decade) studies with shorter-term projects. Our goal is to provide a critical discussion of some of the methodological sticking points that students commonly encounter when initiating field studies of primate dietary ecology and possible ways forward.


Foraging ecology Behavioural observation Methods in primatology Focal animal follow, Scan sampling 



We thank Urs Kalbitzer and Kathy Jack for inviting this contribution. We also thank Urs and two reviewers for constructive comments on earlier versions of the chapter. We acknowledge the decades-long contributions of Linda M. Fedigan and John Addicott to the Santa Rosa project, which enabled the research we discuss here. We also extend our warmest thanks to Kathy Jack for her ongoing collaboration and contributions to research in Sector Santa Rosa (SSR). We would be remiss if we did not highlight the key role that past and current researchers in SSR played in this process of standardizing behavioural data collection, including generating a shared ethogram. We would like to especially acknowledge Fernando Campos, Jeremy Hogan, Monica Myers, Gillian King-Bailey, Mackenzie Bergstrom, Eva Wikberg, and Valerie Schoof. Conversations with colleagues over many years have contributed to the ideas presented in this chapter, and we thank Shoji Kawamura, Chihiro Hiramatsu, Filippo Aureli, Steig Johnson, Nate Dominy, and Erin Vogel. We thank Roger Blanco Segura and Maria Marta Chavarria and staff from the Área de Conservación Guanacaste and Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía. Warmest thanks also to Nina Beeby, Adrienne Blauel, Saul Cheves Hernandez, Adrian Guadamuz, Brandon Klug, Kelly Kries, Michael Lemmon, Ronald Lopez, Nigel Parr, Emily Walco, and Laura Weckman for assistance in the field.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Amanda D. Melin
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  • Shasta E. Webb
    • 1
  • Rachel E. Williamson
    • 1
  • Kenneth L. Chiou
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and ArchaeologyUniversity of CalgaryCalgaryCanada
  2. 2.Department of Medical GeneticsUniversity of CalgaryCalgaryCanada
  3. 3.Alberta Children’s Hospital Research InstituteUniversity of CalgaryCalgaryCanada
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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