Do food availability, parasitism, and stress have synergistic effects on red colobus populations living in forest fragments?



Identifying factors that influence animal density is a fundamental goal in ecology that has taken on new importance with the need to develop informed management plans. This is particularly the case for primates as the tropical forest that supports many species is being rapidly converted. We use a system of forest fragments adjacent to Kibale National Park, Uganda, to examine if food availability and parasite infections have synergistic affects on red colobus (Piliocolobus tephrosceles) abundance. Given that the size of primate populations can often respond slowly to environmental changes, we also examined how these factors influenced cortisol levels. To meet these objectives, we monitored gastrointestinal parasites, evaluated fecal cortisol levels, and determined changes in food availability by conducting complete tree inventories in eight fragments in 2000 and 2003. Red colobus populations declined by an average of 21% among the fragments; however, population change ranged from a 25% increase to a 57% decline. The cumulative basal area of food trees declined by an average of 29.5%; however, forest change was highly variable (a 2% gain to a 71% decline). We found that nematode prevalence averaged 58% among fragments (range 29–83%). The change in colobus population size was correlated both with food availability and a number of indices of parasite infections. A path analysis suggests that change in food availability has a strong direct effect on population size, but it also has an indirect effect via parasite infections. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.