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Dietary and sensory evolution of primates a focus for new Canada Research Chair

From the tropical forests of Costa Rica to Alberta Children’s Hospital – anthropologist Amanda Melin is making an impact

Assistant professor of Anthropology and Archaeology Amanda Melin has been appointed Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Primate Genomics and Dietary Ecology. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

By Heath McCoy
May 17, 2017

Amanda Melin was about half way through her undergraduate degree – studying zoology with her eyes on a career in veterinarian medicine – when a 2001 field school detour in Belize set her on her true path, as an anthropologist.

The born and raised Calgarian had always been interested in animal behavior, ecology and adaptation, so she was naturally drawn to primatologist Mary Pavelka’s field school in Monkey River, Belize, where she studied the behavioural ecology of the Belizean black howler monkey.

“I loved it,” says Melin. “It really hooked me on investigative based research and that, combined with studying monkeys in the wild, set me on what has certainly been the more risky career path. But I haven’t looked back since and I haven’t regretted it.”

To be sure, Melin – an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology – made the right move as her newly announced appointment as a Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Primate Genomics and Dietary Ecology proves.

Today she runs a genomics laboratory on Foothills Campus and conducts research as a member of the Cumming School of Medicine’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI).  Along with University of Calgary primatologist Linda Fedigan and Tulane University’s Kathy Jack she’s also co-director of a long running field site in Sector Rosa, Área de Conservación Costa Rica, where she focuses on the sensory and feeding ecology of capuchin monkeys.

Now, thanks to her CRC position, she’s able to take her research to new heights.

“Way back when I was an undergrad in zoology and biological sciences I was studying genetics and the evolution of animals,” says Melin. “But I always wanted to unite that with the study of animal behaviour.” Melin’s work as an anthropologist has allowed her to bring these fields together.

“Sensory ecology has been my main passion and that’s probably what I’m best known for,” says Melin. “That incorporates feeding ecology and foraging behaviours. How do animals utilize their senses – vision, taste, smell, hearing and touch – to find food and assess what they should and should not eat? And what is the genetic basis of these senses and how they are integrated? That’s been a central focus for me.”

Another pillar of Melin’s work has been researching how changing environments and seasonality can affect an animal’s diet and health. “The focus here is not only on how the animals find their food, but it’s also on what that food is doing to them,” she says. “How does seasonality and environmental changes affect the food they’re eating and how does this shape their digestive outcomes and evolution?” 

This research is directly tied in to Melin’s work with ACHRI, where she’s studying gut bacteria.

In Costa Rica, Melin has been investigating gut microbiomes in capuchin monkeys. “We have two seasonal conditions at the Costa Rican site and every year the monkeys experience a very intense drought,” she says. “Recently the area actually experienced its worst drought in recorded history. All the baby monkeys died last year. So we’re trying to understand how what they’re eating, or not eating, is impacting these microbiomes living in their guts. And how these microbiomes might be acting to give these primates the ability to digest certain things and uptake the needed nutrients to survive.”

This knowledge could be crucial in furthering our understanding of human health. “Humans are primates too, so looking at comparative models can be very important,” Melin notes. “Gaining a better understanding of how primates are responding to a scarcity of food and water may have huge implications for health management where people are living in conditions of drought and famine.”

Melin feels that one of her strengths as a researcher has always been her emphasis on collaborations, and that is something she means to foster even further in her new role as a CRC. “I’ve always worked to develop collaborations with other researchers,” she says. “Right now I’m working on a genomics project involving researchers from nine countries around the world.”

“I always have a number of projects on the go and that wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have such a strong team of people working with me. I have stellar graduate students, post docs and really exceptional undergrads. I’m thankful to have a lot of really talented and hardworking people in my lab group.”

Professor Melin is a member of the Cumming School of Medicine’s Alberta Children’s Research Hospital Institute, and the University of Calgary’s Human Dynamics in a Changing World and Infections, Inflammations and Chronic Diseases research strategy teams.

The Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP) stands at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world's top countries in research and development. Established in 2000, chair holders in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities, and social sciences improve our depth of knowledge and quality of life, strengthen Canada's international competitiveness, and help train the next generation of highly skilled people through student supervision, teaching, and the coordination of other researchers' work. The University of Calgary currently has 56 active Canada Research Chairs.