Christopher Schmitt, Field Primatologist

Christopher Schmitt, Field Primatologist

Meet Christopher Schmitt (he/they), an associate professor of anthropology and biology at Boston University, where he is also co-director of the Sensory Morphology and Anthropological Genomics Lab. For the past decade, Schmitt has worked with the International Vervet Research Consortium to better characterize the links between genotype and phenotype for a variety of traits in vervet monkeys.


9 - 12+


Biology, Ecology, Genetics, Storytelling

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Early Work

"I actually got my start studying wild primates in high school. I attended Milwaukee Public Schools (Rufus King H.S.), where we had a benefactor who funded summer expeditions for 8 students each year with the Earthwatch Institute, which connects high school teachers and students with real field-based research projects. I received a scholarship to fly to northern Argentina to assist on a study of black and gold howler monkeys (Alouatta caraya) led by Dr. Govindasamy Agoramoorthy, and it completely changed the course of my life. It was my first time traveling internationally, my first time working with an international group or researchers, and my first time seeing primates in the wild—we saw intergroup fights, two howlers mated right above my head, and I collected their feces and urine using soda bottles tied to the end of sticks to get hormonal data, and of course got to hike around the gorgeous Chaco… it was incredible! I’ve been studying monkeys ever since."

Most Exciting Part of Your Work

"I grew up as a visibly gay kid in the Midwest, where I was exposed to a lot of bullying in which others speculated, often cruelly, about how I got to be that way, even before I realized I was queer. This ranged from folks telling me that I must have been born 'wrong' or 'damaged,' to folks saying that my environment must have made me that way (being raised mostly by a single mom, being allowed to collect My Little Pony, not getting enough masculine reinforcement, etc.), so I grew up having a kind of existential panic around whether this hugely important trait (that other people seemed to pick up on more than myself!) was innate and immutable or environmental and maybe then changeable. Now, in my work as a primate geneticist, I focus on the interplay between genetic factors underlying traits like body fatness, and how genetic factors can actually experience changes in function as a result of epigenetic modification caused by the environment (including diet, in utero nutritional environment, drought or famine exposure, and more). You can read more about this in my piece in American Anthropologist with my friend and fellow queer primatologist Dr. Stephanie Meredith; for us, it’s immensely satisfying to take these existential anxieties from our queer childhoods and reframe them into a strong theoretical grounding for understanding the biological origins of complex traits. Of course, the monkeys are pretty great, too."

Most Demanding Part of Your Work

"Doing fieldwork with wild non-human primates means traveling to remote areas with cultural norms that might be very different from your own. I’ve often had to work in places where I had to keep my sexuality hidden in order to protect myself from other peoples’ biases. To be clear, there are many places in the U.S. where I also have to do this, and there are many field sites abroad (like where I work in Perú and South Africa) where I can be completely out and accepted by my local collaborators – it all depends on the context. Hiding something so important about yourself is tough; it brings back all the memories and feelings from being a closeted queer kid, and can make it difficult to get close to local folks when you’re afraid that they won’t accept you, or might even harm you; all of this makes it very hard to get the research done. Fortunately, in my current field work I don’t have to worry about that–the biggest challenge for me now is trying to keep up with the monkeys!"

What Being an Explorer Means to You

"The National Geographic Society research that my collaborators and I are doing in Perú, to me, exemplifies what being an Explorer means. We’re testing out thermal drone technology and camera traps to help local communities track difficult-to-study endangered wild primates–the critically endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkey (Lagothrix flavicauda) and the endangered Andean night monkey (Aotus miconax). As Explorers in the present day, our role isn’t necessarily to discover anything ourselves, but rather to help local communities develop the resources and skills necessary to make change where it matters most–teaching their own children about conservation, and helping them to convince other community members of the value and importance of protecting wild primates. What we do is only as significant as the value the local community places on the work and how it gets them towards their own conservation goals. In that way, we’re leveraging our own knowledge of science, education, and storytelling to help our collaborators explore the excitement of primate conservation and fieldwork and to develop their own systems of meaning to foster future conservation efforts."

Explorer Work Showcase

"I’m currently working on two exciting National Geographic Society projects! The project I mention above–Assessing Technological Enhancement of Conservation Monitoring and Education for Endangered Endemic Primates in Perú, with Explorers Santiago Ramírez Said and Roberto Elias Piperis–is a Meridian project collaborating with Peruvian NGO Yunkawasi and the women-founded and led community conservation organization Oso Dorado, and gets started this June.

"My other project, Discovering the Evolutionary Origins of Obesity, was delayed by the pandemic, but my collaborators in South Africa are running the sequencing right now! This project focuses on validating a hypothesis (the Thrifty Genotype) for how humans evolved a propensity to develop metabolic disorders and obesity. Rather than working with humans, I study wild South African vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) as a model system. According to the Thrifty Genotype hypothesis, genetic variation that helps an organism to lay down body fat quickly should become more common from generation to generation when drought is common. This also means that droughts should ‘activate’ obesity-related genes, meaning that they should show greater gene expression during droughts. My research team discovered several obesity-related gene regions in captive vervets in the U.S. (all of them similar to variation associated with metabolic disorders in humans), and with our funding we are looking at gene expression in these wild populations before, during, and after the 2017 drought in South Africa. If we find the obesity-related genes to be expressed differently during the drought, that would provide the first clear evidence for the Thrifty Genotype hypothesis, and will give us a clue to how we may have evolved our own propensity to obesity."

So, You Want To Be a Field Primatologist

"Being a field primatologist is something that can be done in many different ways. The primary path is academic. This means attending university, and preferably majoring in a discipline that can get you started on primate research – I majored in Zoology, but you could also major in Biological Anthropology, Biology, Ecology, Psychology, and more. You can also get direct experience in field courses–I’ve taught Primate Behavior field courses with Maderas Rainforest Conservancy, and highly recommend Field Projects International, which hosts an amazing Genomics in the Jungle course that I’ve guest lectured in. Finally, it’s great to love the monkeys, but even better to love digging into the theoretical reasons why monkeys are interesting. Although many of us start out by picking a region (e.g., Andean cloud forest or African savannah) or species (e.g., chimpanzees or woolly monkeys) that we are most interested in because we think they’re awesome, it’s far better to be interested in a specific question that can only be answered with fieldwork."

Get Involved

"If going the academic route and getting a Masters or Ph.D. to conduct wild primate research isn’t for you, there are many other ways to participate in wild primate conservation and research. I already mentioned field courses, but there are always volunteer opportunities available to help with primate research projects, both in captivity and in the wild. The Earthwatch Institute also provides many opportunities to help out on field-based projects (and is where I got my own start in field primatology). If you want to help our conservation work in Perú, you can donate to Yunkawasi, or directly to our ¡Achórate! Campaign to support yellow-tailed woolly monkey conservation on the 50th anniversary of their rediscovery in Perú!"

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Last Updated

June 24, 2024

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