Student impresses with summer research
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2012 23:10
Note to professors: most students dread sharing interesting facts about their summers with the rest of the class on the first day of school. But this year, Miami University junior Alex McFarland had a good one; he researched orangutans in Borneo.
McFarland participated in Earth Expeditions, a Miami program that has courses in 12 countries around the world that is offered mostly to master’s degree candidates and teachers, but accepts select undergraduate students, like McFarland.
Earth Expeditions is part of Project Dragonfly, a program created by Miami faculty and students in 1994 that supports community engagement in science.
McFarland was accepted into the Earth Expeditions program in Borneo, a tropical island near Malaysia, where the course focused on primate conservation. He used his trip as the basis for his research for Miami’s Undergraduate Summer Scholars (USS) program. He wanted to compare orangutans in the wild to orangutans in captivity at the Cincinnati zoo.
While in Borneo, McFarland observed some key traits of orangutans.
“Orangutans spend about seven years with their moms,” McFarland said. “They spend that time period learning skills for survival, how to build nests, what foods to eat and such.”
The orangutans McFarland observed at the Cincinnati zoo spent more time on the ground than orangutans in the wild do, according to McFarland.
They also do not build nests, whereas wild orangutans build a new nest every night. According to McFarland, this could be because of lack of materials in captivity or because they were born in captivity, so never learned to nest.
McFarland said about 85 percent of Borneo’s forests have been logged for use in palm oil plantations, limiting the orangutan’s natural habitat.
“The problem becomes, with such a rapid increase in habitat loss, the influx of orphans into rehabilitation centers is considerably higher,” McFarland said. “The people who work at the centers are typically local people who are donating their time. They are not trained to work with orangutans.”
Through his research, McFarland hopes to discover a unified plan for how to approach orangutan rehabilitation.
“If we look at how they behave in captivity, what works and what doesn’t work for them, and their mental and physical health, then we can use that as a model for rehabilitation centers in the wild,” McFarland said.
McFarland’s research was a formative experience for the undergrad. Scott Suarez, assistant professor of anthropology at Miami and McFarland’s research mentor, said he thinks the trip was very important for McFarland.
“I think he came back transformed from this trip,” Suarez said. “He left with an interest in primates, but he came back so motivated. You can’t get this kind of knowledge from a book.”
McFarland said he was inspired by the villagers’ affection for the orangutans and their efforts to conserve them.
“One guy said something that really stuck with me,” McFarland said. “He said, ‘Mallotus’ who is a young orangutan, ‘is the same age as my daughter, and when my daughter grows up, I want her to be able to share the forest with Mallotus.’”
Chris Myers, Miami zoology professor and founder and director of Project Dragonfly, said community engagement is one of the benefits of the program.
“It is a long running, successful program at Miami that supports community engagement in science and conservation,” Myers said. “…It gives people the chance to be a part of making a social or environmental impact with some of the most critical and inspiring projects and sites worldwide.”