Anthropology professor spreads passion, knowledge of primates

Associate professor of anthropology Barbara Welker has traveled near and far to study eating habits of primates, specifically howler monkeys. Geneseo alumni and former student of Welker, Keenan Taylor, is pictured with the skeleton of a primate. (Courtesy of Barbara Welker)

Associate professor of anthropology Barbara Welker contributes her expertise to Geneseo in behavioral ecology—within the framework of physical anthropology—among primates. 

In her fieldwork, Welker pursues the primates of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. At Geneseo, she dominates the biological anthropology department, specifically with her popular human ecology class. 

While completing her master’s degree, Welker collected data on recess monkeys in Puerto Rico for her advisor, who studied primate relationships between mothers and infants. Using the data that she collected, Welker then examined maternal activity budgets among the monkeys. 

Upon graduating from the University at Buffalo, she completed her doctoral dissertation in Costa Rica, where she investigated feeding selectivity in howler monkeys. 

“I work with malted howler monkeys,” Welker said. “And I do behavioral ecology, specifically feeding ecology.” 

In her recent research, Welker examined the role of color vision regarding food gathering among primates. An analysis of the history of color vision reveals that the trait most likely evolved as an adaptation for eating and for distinguishing young, viable leaves, according to Welker. 

Before her color vision research, Welker focused her studies on the chemical differences between trees—a factor in feeding selectivity for monkeys. Pursuing the question, “Why would monkeys eat from some trees and not others?” Welker ultimately isolated a chemical deterrent and published her findings. 

“I’m interested in feeding selectivity specifically, which focuses on how animals choose what to eat,” Welker said. “I really feel like I’m mostly an animal behaviorologist.” 

In addition to conducting her own research, Welker has led field instruction programs, schools and student-driven projects in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica. 

Although she has had an expansive and successful career as a primatologist, Welker did not always intend to study biological anthropology. In fact, when she started in her anthropological program, Welker planned to specialize in archaeology. 

“I went back to school for anthropology to become an archaeologist, but I got side-tracked in primatology,” she said. “I imagined myself up to my elbows in dusty pots as an old lady and decided that I would really rather be a primatologist.” 

When she decided to change her course of study, Welker enrolled in physical anthropology classes; that was when she began to learn about primates. Having completed her dissertation, Welker—using her past field experience—first taught courses at UB and Buffalo State College. 

After a semester of adjunct teaching at Geneseo, Welker spent six months doing research and returned as a full-time faculty member in 1998.

Like most anthropologists, Welker has dedicated a considerable amount of her career to research—often, in the form of field work at remote sites. As a primatologist, Welker’s pursuits in the field entail following and observing her research subjects: the malted howler monkeys.

“One of my most interesting field experiences with my monkeys was me not giving them enough credit for being as cognitively advanced as they are,” Welker said. “They started eating a new kind of fruit one day, and they led me to the same kind of tree on the other side of the home range—like they knew where it was and were just waiting for it to flower.” 

When working in the field, Welker—who lives in the forest while researching—typically follows the monkeys for 12 hours per day. After planning her research protocol, Welker begins the process of data collection: going out and monitoring every species and documenting individual behaviors within groups. 

“Doing field work is a very regimented task,” she said, “Sort of like being in the military.”

In the past, Welker took students to pursue research on the volcanic islands in Lake Nicaragua. Currently, she is working with the study abroad office about the possibility of field courses in Northeast Peru. 

With an exciting variety of traveling experiences, Welker is far from your typical anthropology professor.