The making of an academic paper: Monkeys, mothering and the bystander effect

By Stuart Semple

In recent years, nature documentary series have begun to feature short, ‘The making of…’ sequences at the end of each episode, in which the viewer is afforded an insight into the plans, trials and tribulations that ultimately led to some of the footage they have just watched. These sequences are very popular, not least because they allow us to peer ‘behind the scenes’, giving us a perspective to which we would not normally have access.

When we read research papers in biological anthropology, such a perspective is typically completely absent. In consuming such research, we are almost invariably focussed solely on the end-product, and largely ignore the underlying process. We may read the Methods section to find out what was done, but this often doesn’t tell us how the study came about in the first place, or crucially where the original idea for the work came from.

This is a shame, I think, as these untold backstories can be very informative. They may, in particular, shine a light on the somewhat random nature of the scientific process and the role that serendipity has to play in shaping the research we do. They can also reveal the sheer amount of time that can elapse between the birth of an idea and its bearing fruit in terms of a publication. These two factors, chance and time, don’t feature in a typical Methods section but I do think it is important – particularly, perhaps, for students who are new to the research process – to appreciate how relevant they can be.

I was delighted to find recently that one journal, Nature Ecology and Evolution, has a series of blog pieces, “Behind the paper”, telling the backstory of recently published articles. All of the ones I have read are great, and many of them touch on the issues I mention above. For example, one piece on hurricane-induced selection on the morphology of an island lizard, highlights the role of serendipity – just being in the right place at the right time – in research. Another, related to a paper on habitat fragmentation, highlights how papers can emerge fortuitously from ideas generated many years after data were collected (fourteen years in this case!).

In this spirit, I would like to tell the story of ‘the making of…’one of my own papers. This was a study in which a chance observation – occurring many years before the paper saw the light of day – played a vital role. I will begin at the end…

In 2009, with colleagues Melissa Gerald and Dianne Suggs, I published a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B, entitled “Bystanders affect the outcome of mother-infant interactions in rhesus macaques”. It is a paper I am pretty proud of, and one which gained significant media coverage at the time (e.g. on the BBC website and in Science), although its rather meagre 19 citations to date suggest its impact on the scientific field has not been exactly seismic! [Reader – please feel free to cite this paper heavily…I live in the hope it will turn out to be a Sleeping Beauty one day]. The story of how this paper came about starts with pure happenstance, and in total spans a period of nearly twelve years…

In the Autumn of 1997, I was finishing up the fieldwork for my PhD, studying the form and function of copulation calls of Barbary macaques in Gibraltar. In the middle of a long day attempting (largely unsuccessfully) to play back these calls to specific adult males to check their response, I sat down on the ground to take a break and enjoy the view (I was working in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, from where you can see across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Rif Mountains of Morocco…it’s a sight that never grows old). About five metres to my right was an adult female, Nikita, with her 6-8 month old infant, and a few metres in front and facing away from the three of us, was an adult male, Luke.

Within a few minutes, the relative peace was shattered by Nikita’s infant, rebuffed after attempting to nurse, throwing a full scale tantrum. Those of you familiar with young primates (including young human primates) will be all too familiar with the high-pitched and grating screams and cries that accompany such events. A minute or two into this commotion, Nikita was showing absolutely no sign of giving in to her little one’s demands and the volume ratcheted up a little further. I was reluctant to move away as I had just got comfortable, but there is only so much screaming and crying you can take and, even in my somewhat lazy mood, I was close to cracking. Just as I was about to roust myself, however, Luke turned his body right round and made an exaggerated and very intimidating threat face and grunt straight at Nikita’s infant.

The response was instant…Nikita pulled a submissive fear face, grabbed her infant and held it to her breast where it immediately began to nurse. Silence reigned once more.

I had not witnessed such an interaction between mother, infant and an adult male before, but of course I hadn’t been watching for one. It was pure chance – and, to be honest, largely the result of my being too idle to move away earlier – that I happened to see it that day…but doing so set me thinking about what had just happened. I was intrigued, first of all, from the perspective of understanding the nature of the communicative interaction. I was used to thinking of vocal communication as taking place between two individuals – a signaller and a receiver – but I was aware that colleagues in the field had started to look at how third parties, so called ‘bystanders’, might affect the interaction. What I had witnessed seemed like a perfect example of a bystander directly affecting the outcome of a signalling interaction, a phenomenon that is common in humans but very poorly understood in other species.

Secondly, I started to think about how the impact of bystanders might shape mothers’ behaviour towards crying infants…would the presence of a large, potentially aggressive animal effectively force a mother’s hand into giving in to her offspring’s demands? Might mothers attempt to mitigate such risks by punishing crying infants in an attempt to silence their whinging? The dynamics of mother-offspring conflict had been much discussed in the theoretical and empirical literature, but I could not recall any of these papers considering how third parties might affect such interactions.

Of course, at this stage all I had was one anecdotal observation and exploring these ideas required targeted data collection over a decent period of time. For various reasons – primarily interest in other projects, paper writing and attempts to find a permanent job –  it was not until 2003 that I finally got round to writing a grant to take this project forward. After one unsuccessful application that year, in 2004 I was awarded a grant to fund the study from the Wenner Gren Foundation (I take the opportunity again here to sincerely acknowledge their support).

Data collection ended up taking place not on Barbary macaques in Gibraltar, but rather on rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago (the latter site afforded the chance for a much bigger sample size). As, by this stage, I had a lectureship at University of Roehampton and could not spend months in the field, data were collected by my superb field assistant Dianne Suggs, with invaluable support from Melissa Gerald who was at that time in charge of research on Cayo. By late 2005 we had the data in hand – in total observations of over three hundred crying bouts (tantrums). To ‘enjoy’ one such bout, please listen here:


Due to teaching and other demands, it would take me until a sabbatical in 2007 before I could really get to grips properly with these data. The analyses showed some very clear patterns. Crying by infants had serious consequences for mothers and their offspring – both were threatened by bystanders at much higher rates when the infant was crying than at other times. Perhaps as a consequence, mothers were far more likely to give into their infants’ crying when in the presence of bystanders that posed a threat of aggression towards them. Interestingly, mothers’ responses to crying infants were not affected by the presence of bystanders who were lower ranking than themselves, or higher ranking but in the same matriline (and hence judged not to pose a serious threat of aggression). Finally, mothers’ rates of aggression towards their infants was massively elevated during crying bouts. So the evidence clearly indicated that bystanders significantly affected mother-offspring interactions in this species, a phenomenon not previously documented outside our own species.

Rhesus macaque mothers and infants in a peaceful, tantrum-free moment

After many drafts and revisions throughout late 2007 and 2008, and after invaluable feedback from my colleagues in CRESIDA on developing versions of the manuscript, we finally submitted it in late 2008. After a ‘reject but resubmit’ and one round of revisions, it was published in early 2009…over a decade after the ideas first came to me!

Not all of my papers arise from purely serendipitous events, of course, and thankfully not all take so many years to see the light of day. However, I always look back on this particular publication as one that taught me two important lessons: that good ideas can sometimes just drop into your lap, and that some projects are just not meant to be rushed…

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