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Zoo Research Discovers Slow Primate Metabolism Leads to Long Life

By Paul Biasco | January 13, 2014 3:00pm
 Children look into the chimpanzee exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Children look into the chimpanzee exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
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Lincoln Park Zoo

LINCOLN PARK — New research produced in part by Lincoln Park Zoo scientists hopes to explain why humans and other primates grow up so slowly compared to other animals.

The research found that humans and primates burn 50 percent fewer calories each day than other mammals, which is the main reason the species mature slowly and live long lives.

"For a long time when people sought to explain [slow primate development] they said it is probably because primates need extra time to develop their big brains and other cognitive abilities," said Steve Ross, director of the Lincoln Park Zoo's Lester E. Fischer Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes.

The results of the data, collected from 17 primate species ranging from gorillas to mouse lemurs, were "a real surprise," according to Herman Pontzer, an anthropologist at Hunter College in New York.

The results hold implications for the understanding of health and longevity in humans, according to the researchers.

That includes unraveling the relationship between physical activity and daily energy expenditure, which may improve our understanding of obestiy and other metabolic diseases.

"Humans, chimpanzees, baboons, and other primates expend only half the calories we’d expect for a mammal," Pontzer said. "To put that in perspective, a human — even someone with a very physically active lifestyle — would need to run a marathon each day just to approach the average daily energy expenditure of a mammal their size."

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday afternoon.

The research will be especially helpful to Ross and other scientists at the Lincoln Park Zoo because it found that primates in captivity burn as many calories each day as those in the wild.

That information will allow for more certainty in research and studies conducted on primates at the zoo, and for further studies that otherwise might have only been conducted in the wild.

The data will also allow the zoo's staff to fine tune the diets of the 16 apes from Lincoln Park that participated in the study, according to Ross.

"There's potential to use this data very directly to effect the care of the animals that we are studying," he said.