Thursday, March 20, 2008

Residual life

Most of us take for granted that we will live for a long time after we stop having kids (for those of us who will have kids). The standard picture for Americans these days is to stop at 40 or so, hope to live to twice that age. And this doesn't seem unrealistic. But when viewed evolutionarily, it seems a bit bizarre. Most organisms do not have a post-reproductive lifespan, human females very clearly do. I've previously written about the most common hypothesis to explain this fact, is the "Grandmother Hypothesis."

On Tuesday I was giving a talk on my research to Berkeley's Primate Research Group, including my experimental examination of the Grandmother Hypothesis. After the talk, I got a lot of good feedback, including an interesting question. How certain are we that females of other species of primates wouldn't live as long post-menopause as humans if they lived as cushy lives as we do?

The only answer I could give them is that I haven't seen any data suggesting otherwise. But then, on my way home, it occurred to me that I already have probably the world's best data set for answering exactly that question.

Primates in well run zoos tend to greatly outlive their wild cousins. Medical care, reliable food supplies, no predators and few pathogens. Not to say the life of a captive primate is perfect, or that there isn't significant variation in the quality of care, but for many species maximum longevity in captivity is much greater than in the wild. And it just so happens that I have life tables, including age specific reproductive rates and mortality rates, for 120 species of primates. These come from ISIS data, meaning data from relatively well run zoos, and I will need permission from ISIS to use them in this way, but I doubt they will have any major objections.

The idea of writing a paper based on data I already have is exciting to me. Usually I spend years between having an idea and having assembled the data to address it. I have almost all the data I need to address this question safely on several computers. I'll get the hang of this science thing yet.

No comments: