The field of primatology is defined by the species studied (nonhuman primates: apes, monkeys, and prosimians), not the topics that are studied. This means primatologists study a wide array of research topics and the field is very interdisciplinary, representing biology, anthropology, ecology, linguistics, genetics, psychology, medicine, welfare, and more! For the most part, nonhuman primates are research subjects because they are so similar to humans, and the principal reason for this similarity is simple: humans *are* primates. This makes nonhuman primates valuable for answering questions related to human evolution as well for translational research. The diverse number of social and mating systems, behaviors, and morphologies allows primatologists to examine a range of proximate and ultimate questions.
The ways that primatologists study primates are dictated by the questions being asked. This creates many kinds of primate research. Some primatologists conduct field observations of wild primates, while others gather behavioral observations of animals in captivity, carry out experimental behavioral and physiological research, do biomedical research, and more.
Primatologists are interested in all primates as fascinating subjects for research but certain species are traditionally used for different types of research. In laboratories, the most common species studied are macaques, including rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta), long-tail macaques (also known as cynomologus or crab-eating macaques) (Macaca fascicularis), and pig-tail macaques (Macaca nemestrina). Other species used for biomedical research include African green monkeys (Chlorocebus sabaeus) and common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus). Universities that conduct behavioral and cognitive research, which is typically non-invasive, house species including capuchins (Sapajus apella), marmosets (Callithrix jacchus), and titi monkeys (Callicebus curpreus). Of course, in field and zoo settings, a wide variety of species are studied, representing apes, monkeys, and prosimians.
No. Because nonhuman primates are highly regulated in the United States, any experiment that a scientist proposes to conduct with primates must be approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at the Institution where the scientist works, or an equivalent ethics board. The scientist must describe in detail the specific procedures that they plan to use, such as any behavioral testing, surgical procedures, or experimental substances like drugs or vaccines that the animals might receive. There must be an explanation of whether any of the procedures are likely to cause the animals pain or distress, and if so, details must be presented describing all steps the scientist will take to minimize or eliminate pain or distress. The scientist must also provide a justification for why the proposed research must be conducted with primates rather than some other animal; whether there are any alternative ways that the scientist can find the answer to their question (for example, by studying cells or mini organs, rather than live animals); and why the scientist needs to study the specific number of animals they are proposing to study. In addition, the scientist must demonstrate that the proposed research does not unnecessarily duplicate research that has already been conducted. Finally, the scientist must list all personnel who will be involved in the project and must be able to document the training that those individuals have had with respect to the procedures to be employed and the animals to be used. The IACUC must approve this proposal before the research can be begun.
The same principles apply to research on wild nonhuman primates in their natural habitat and those in zoological parks. In primate habitat countries, the precise regulations governing research on wild animals vary, and it is the responsibility of the researcher to make sure all application procedures have been followed. Generally, such applications include a detailed description of the research, its possible consequences for the primates, and likely benefits for the country involved. ASP has produced a Code of Best Practice for field primatology to help guide researchers planning on conducting studies of wild primates in their natural habitats. Through such fieldwork, primatologists help to educate people around the world about biology, wildlife conservation, and the importance of natural resources. In zoological settings, primatologists should work with individual organizations to get appropriate ethical and logistical approval of their proposed studies, as well as from any other relevant organizations. For example, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has a standardized research proposal form to be used when seeking review from AZA-accredited organizations. The AZA has also produced a set of guidelines and tips for designing research for zoo settings.
For a scientist to use nonhuman primates in their research, they must provide extensive and well-researched reasoning to an IACUC or equivalent ethics board, which typically includes veterinarians, as to why the research question can only be answered with a primate model and the benefits that the research offers. Every effort is made to reduce the number of nonhuman primates used in research, or to replace higher order animal models with lower orders, or with no animal research subjects at all. Indeed, the vast majority of animals used in biomedical research are rats and mice and research with primates is never the first step in the research pathway. When primates are used in biomedical research, scientists seek ways to refine the research process to prioritize animal welfare and increase research validity.
For the U.S., the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides annual reports on the number of nonhuman primates that are involved in research each year. There is no estimate available for the number of nonhuman primates studied in their natural habitat or in zoological parks, but research in these settings is almost entirely non-invasive.
The majority of primates used for laboratory research in the United States are bred domestically at several specialized facilities around the country. Some species are still imported but primatologists work with governments and conservation organizations to see that all international trade in nonhuman primates follows regulations set forth in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
In biomedical settings, the housing provided to nonhuman primates varies depending on the age and species of the animals, as well as by research or breeding needs. The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals states that “nonhuman primates should normally have social housing (i.e., in compatible pairs or in larger groups of compatible animals)” (p. 58, NRC, 2011). Accordingly, nonhuman primates should be socially housed as default. Where exemptions for social housing are approved by veterinarians for clinical care or for specific research needs, those animals must be provided with special attention and enhancement of their environment as per the Code of Federal Regulations (Title 9, Chapter 1, Subchapter A, Part 3, Supbart D). To learn more about how primates in research facilities are housed and cared for, you can view this virtual tour of the Oregon National Primate Research Center.
There are four federal agencies that regulate the use of animals in research.
Finally, one independent, non-Federal organization that is involved in animal welfare in captivity is the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, International (AAALAC). Institutions voluntarily join AAALAC, which inspects facilities every three years and accredits those institutions that meet the highest standards for animal care. Institutions proudly display their accreditation by AAALAC.
These FAQs were written by John P. Capitanio, Ph.D. in 1998 and revised in 2023 by the ASP Research and Development Committee, chaired by Lydia M. Hopper, Ph.D. and Julie Teichroeb, Ph.D. Approved by the ASP Board of Directors on 9 May 2023.