ExplorersBio

Dorothy Fragaszy

Ethologist

Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee

Tufted Capuchin, Parnaiba Headwaters NP, Brazil

Photograph by Ben Cranke, The Image Bank/Getty Images

Photo: Dorothy Fragaszy

Photograph by Barth Wright

Birthplace: Greenport, New York

Current City: Athens, Georgia

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

When I was young, like many young girls, I wanted to raise horses and spend my time outdoors, training and caring for them. Unlike many girls, I actually did raise horses (and other domestic animals) and spend my time outdoors, because I had the great good fortune to spend my childhood on a small farm in a rural area. I roamed the wooded hills and farmed valleys on my horse for hours and hours, sometimes getting a bit lost, but my horse always knew the way home!

How did you get started in your field of work?

I have always been fascinated with the living world, and especially with animals, and a scientific approach to knowledge discovery has always seemed completely natural to me. I discovered as an undergraduate majoring in psychology that animal behavior is a proper "field of study" and that people could make a profession of studying animal behavior. I explored this possibility for myself by volunteering to be a research assistant for a professor at my university on his project concerning the behavior of mother and infant lemurs. My assignment was to watch the lemurs, recording what the mother and baby did. This was a total pleasure for me. I decided to study animal behavior as a scientific profession.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to studying animal behavior?

The beauty and complexity of the natural world inspire me. With respect to my particular fields (psychology, animal behavior, primatology) the conviction that my work generates new (and hopefully better) understanding of how other species live in the world, and thus contributes to our understanding of the natural world and our place in it, supports me.

What's a normal day like for you?

I teach at a large university from mid-August to mid-May, so a normal day for me includes meeting with students and colleagues, teaching, reading, writing, and dealing with correspondence, like any university professor. I only wish there were more hours in the day.

My normal day when I am at our field site in Brazil, studying wild capuchin monkeys, begins at first light and involves following the monkeys on their daily travels, studying how they spend their time, where they go, what they eat, how they use tools in foraging, and how they interact with one another. We also spend a good deal of time preparing and running field experiments, where we "ask" the wild monkeys what they prefer and how they will solve a particular problem. At the end of the day we gather for dinner, and we spend time each night admiring the marvelously clear starry sky that stretches from one horizon to the other. It is both exhilarating and relaxing to work in this beautiful place with a team of enthusiastic colleagues.

Do you have a hero?

My father is my hero. He had a consuming curiosity for the natural world, great respect and compassion for all living things, and boundless energy. He taught me and my sisters that we could aspire to do anything. He had to carve time out of a busy life to spend time in nature, and he did. He believed in leaving the world a better place than he found it.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

My favorite experience in the field is watching the monkeys play with each other, rolling, tumbling, chasing, and wrestling with one another on the ground and while suspended in the trees. They are so obviously enjoying themselves, the good feelings are contagious.

The most challenging experience I have in the field is climbing cliffs to follow the monkeys and to explore locations where beds of quartzite river cobbles (the larger of which the monkeys use as hammer stones) are exposed in eroding sandstone bluffs and ridges. I am not an experienced rock climber!

What are your other passions?

My other passions also involve the out of doors: skiing, scuba, hiking, walking on the beach, sailing, tennis, and gardening. Of this list, I get to do the last four regularly.

What do you do in your free time?

I read a good book, preferably a historical novel, mystery novel, folk tales, or classical literature, or I take my dog for a walk.

If you could have people do one thing to help save forest ecosystems, what would it be?

If I could have people do one thing to help save forest ecosystems, and the biodiversity they contain, I would have people (communities, school systems) create programs that allow children time to experience forests with some guidance (help in feeling, smelling, hearing as well as seeing) and a lot of freedom. I think children have a natural affinity for nature, but our urban lifestyle does not allow many people to experience nature in a way that allows them to learn to love it. We need to love nature to work to protect it.

In Their Words

I think children have a natural affinity for nature, but our urban lifestyle does not allow many people to experience nature in a way that allows them to learn to love it. We need to love nature to work to protect it.

—Dorothy Fragaszy

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