People may suspect that Christopher Schmitt, a Boston University assistant professor of anthropology, was drawn to study vervet monkeys because of their intelligence, irresistible cuteness, and curious, most distinctive characteristic: their brilliant blue scrotums.
While all these things are fascinating—and he does use #BlueScrotumSummer to catalog some of his fieldwork on social media—it’s another feature that attracts scientists like Schmitt to vervets: their genes.
Schmitt, who tweets as @fuzzyatelin, studies vervets in the wild, and also in a captive colony at Wake Forest University, where most of the monkeys are pedigreed and genotyped. Some of the captive monkeys also become obese, a trait uncommon in the vervets’ wild cousins and of particular interest to Schmitt, who is searching for a genomic role in the disease.
“I look at developmental patterns that lead to adult-onset obesity in order to understand better about why we become obese,” says Schmitt. “And I also work with these animals in the wild so that I can understand the ecological context for these developmental patterns.”
Boston University writer Barbara Moran spoke to Schmitt about monkey development, genes, and the joys of working with vervets in the field.