Graduate Student Studies Social Behavior of Zoo-Housed Gorillas
Many graduate students at Ohio State have the goal of making a tremendous impact in their field of study. In the case of Ashley Edes, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology, she’s already making waves in the field of primatology.
Edes is the first to conduct a study on how zoo-housed gorillas’ social relationships can affect and decrease their stress levels over their lifetime. For several years, she has been studying the causes of stress in gorillas at a handful of zoos around the country, with the hope of improving their overall quality of life. Edes’ research is not just academic; she is following a passion sparked by her lifelong interest in primates.
“There is something about great apes that has always fascinated and inspired me, and one day I decided to put that passion to work by helping gorillas living in zoos,” Edes said. “Zoos have done a tremendous job improving the health and welfare of their animals over the past several decades. One of my goals is to aid that mission and keep it moving forward by providing a scientific metric that can be used to directly assess each individual animal's welfare and their likelihood of future health issues.”
Ashley has been conducting research at the Columbus Zoo since 2014, analyzing frozen serum samples and testing levels of biological indicators of stress, such as cortisol. She has also spent a considerable amount of time observing and recording gorilla behaviors, especially social relationships.
“Stress is damaging to our health, and experiencing stressful events throughout our lives contributes to an increased risk of illness and shortened lifespan,” said Edes. “My research applies this concept to gorillas by estimating damage due to stress over the lifespan, or allostatic load, and then testing for associations with future outcomes, such as the development of chronic degenerative conditions like cardiovascular disease.”
In April 2016, Edes published her research, “Assessing Stress in Zoo-Housed Western Lowland Gorillas Using Allostatic Load,” in the International Journal of Primatology. The American Society of Primatologists (ASP) recognized Edes’ work with the ASP Primate Welfare Award.
While the recognition is a tremendous honor, Edes said that it also gave her the confidence to know that she is in the right field of study.
“As a new researcher, it can be difficult establishing your methodology and the importance of your work in the scientific community,” she said. “Receiving this recognition reaffirmed that I am on the right path and that my research is already making valuable contributions to primatology, endocrinology and veterinary science.”
Ashley credits much of her success to her mentors in the Department of Anthropology and the high expectations that they set for her and the other PhD candidates. While she has thoroughly appreciated their support during her time as a student, she looks forward to graduating and implementing her skills in the field of primatology.
“The Department of Anthropology at Ohio State has been a tremendous help in achieving my goals. I have an excellent advisor, Professor Douglas Crews, and the other members of my dissertation committee strongly support my research efforts,” Edes said. “The combination of high standards and open collaboration has given me many of the critical skills necessary to becoming an accomplished scholar in primatology.”
Edes is optimistic that she will continue her studies on zoo-housed gorillas after graduation and also be able to apply her knowledge and skills to other aspects in the field of primatology.
“I hope to continue my work while serving as a faculty member at a university or research scientist at a zoo,” Edes said. “In addition to gorillas, I also have started the work of expanding this research to other great ape species, (such as) chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. Because the stress response functions similarly throughout vertebrates, the possibilities of using this methodology to examine and improve welfare for animals in human care are endless.”
By Hannah Smith, ASC Communications student, third-year journalism major