Studying the Slow Loris

Faculty headshot.

Stephanie Poindexter, primatologist and assistant professor of anthropology 

A never-ending fascination for the slow loris, a nocturnal primate native to Southeast Asia, drives Stephanie Poindexter’s research into conservation of the endangered species. 

Several drawings in Stephanie Poindexter’s office depict the slow loris, a nocturnal primate she’s been researching for the past decade with never-ending fascination.

Native to Southeast Asia and neighboring regions, these animals move slowly and deliberately, yet they are daring nighttime acrobats: Their big first toes allow them to grip limbs as they smoothly swing from tree to tree. Often they dangle from their hind feet while eating or playing. Perhaps their most notable feature are their large, luminous eyes and powerful night vision. Sadly, this delightful animal—the only venomous primate—is threatened by deforestation, as well as by an unscrupulous pet trade.

Poindexter, assistant professor and a biological anthropologist, is determined to develop long-term field studies of the slow loris, collecting data on the same population over multiple years. She and a group of UB students are spending several weeks in Thailand this summer gathering data and observing the animals’ behavior. Specifically, they’re looking at the Bengal slow loris (Nycticebus bengalensis), the largest species and one that is spread over a sizable geographical area. “Their size is going to influence the way that they move and what they eat,” says Poindexter, who arrived at UB in 2020 after earning her doctorate in anthropology and geography from Oxford Brookes University in the UK and doing postdoctoral research at Boston University. “You have slow lorises that are small, 400 grams (14 oz.)—they look like little rats,” she says. “And then you have some like the species that we study, which can weigh 2,000 grams (4.4 lbs.). They’re more like a one-year-old cat.”

What brought Poindexter to the slow loris was the comparative lack of study about them as well as their prevalence throughout Southeast Asia. “I was seeing how little we knew about slow lorises, and how badly their populations were doing in the wild because of the pet trade and deforestation,” she says. 

Poindexter says her anthropological subfield focuses on the biological aspects of human evolution, human variation and human ecology. This focus has broad implications for understanding primate behavior, including our own. “To be specialized in primatology means that I look at non-human primates to ask biological questions about how we, too, evolved.”

Poindexter believes that anthropological research and global conservation efforts ought to go hand in hand. In 2020, she and fellow scientist Liz Tyson testified before a Congressional subcommittee in support of the Captive Primate Safety Act. “The U.S. primate pet trade affects more than just the domestic breeders, buyers and primates,” the two women testified at the time. “It has a global reach, one which is taking a toll on the world’s biodiversity. The primate trade at the international level is gruesome.” 

“If we don’t work on the conservation of these species, then we won’t have these really great models for all the human evolution questions,” Poindexter says. 

In her teaching, she emphasizes real-world issues and experiential learning. “Students should learn not only the theoretical basis of anthropology and primatology but also what is happening now and how they can fit into the future of the discipline.” So undergraduate students working in Poindexter’s lab might take copious notes on primate behavior, for instance, while observing video footage of zoo-housed animals. Meanwhile, her course assignments frequently entail practical training such as presenting posters and writing grants and abstracts.

Poindexter traces her interest in primates to childhood visits to the Brookfield (Illinois) Zoo outside her native Chicago. But it took a switch from pre-med to a physical anthropology major at Washington University in St. Louis to begin to shape her future career. WashU had a number of prominent primatologists on the faculty, and Poindexter flourished in taking their courses and absorbing their research lessons. 

Teaching, doing research, drafting scholarly articles and submitting papers is a full-time-plus occupation by anyone’s definition. But Poindexter takes time to hone her personal interests and achieve a healthy work-life balance. She shares her home in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village with her partner, a band teacher and performer. Poindexter, too, is a musician who plays the viola; she also speaks French and likes to cook. In fact, when she returns stateside from her research travels, she would like to take a culinary class in the city she now calls home.

“I’m still looking for my hobbies,” she says with a smile.

Story by Ann Whitcher Gentzke
Photograph by Douglas Levere

Published August 30, 2022