Justin D’Agostino

Recording siamang – Justin D’Agostino uses a Marantz professional audio recorder with a Sennheiser shotgun microphone to capture high-quality recordings of wild siamang vocalizations. While the “very loud” conversations can be heard more than 1.5 kilometers away in the forest, capturing recordings that can be statistically analyzed necessitates being within 300 meters of the gibbons, D’Agostino said. (Photo provided)

April 28, 2017

Graduate student wins Fulbright scholarship

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate student Justin D’Agostino is the recipient of a J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship award to study the origins of language flexibility by investigating how globalization impacts primate vocalizations.

A doctoral anthropology student, D’Agostino will spend a minimum of 10 months in Indonesia, flying into Jakarta in September to do field work in Sikundur and Batang Toru on the island of Sumatra. His project, “Effects of anthropogenic noise on the natural calling behavior of wild siamang,” involves testing how human-induced noise affects the loud, long, almost daily duets of the siamangs – the largest of the gibbons.

D’Agostino said the implications of his study extend well beyond the black furry mammals.

“One of the most important parts of my doctoral education here at SIU is learning how to put this into an evolutionary perspective. It is possible, but at the same time quite difficult, to clearly show that if a close relative to humans, with a similar vocalization system, is impacted by noise, then all modern humans are also likely susceptible,” he said. “This project also has important conservation implications and could show that these animals are impacted not only by direct deforestation, but also by subtle things like human noise.”

In addition to his research, D’Agostino, in partnership with Syiah Kuala University, Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, will work with local field guides and make educational presentations in local schools and villages, engaging the community in his work and explaining the research.

He said that during his time in Indonesia, he hopes “to expand my established research skillset and my Bahasa, Indonesia, language competency. I want to contribute to primate communication research and honor the local culture by conversing with Indonesians in their native language. In addition to collecting data to finish my Ph.D. at SIU, I am also making a documentary of this experience, titled ‘From Captivity to the Jungle,’ to share this amazing experience with family, friends and anyone else who is curious about this research adventure.”

A native of Alexandria, Va., D’Agostino grew up in Bowie, Md., and the surrounding Washington, D.C. area. He moved to San Francisco at the age of 17 and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at San Francisco State University in 2009. He completed his master’s degree in anthropology in 2015 at California State University in Los Angeles before coming to SIU, where he has focused on primatology as he works toward his doctoral degree.

While presenting his master’s research at the International Primatological Society Congress in Vietnam in 2014, D’Agnostino met his current SIU adviser, Ulrich H. Reichard, associate professor of anthropology. He was impressed by the young man who had already completed several intensive primate research studies and who had had articles published about the flexibility of gibbon learning and loud calls in long-tailed red langurs, an Asian monkey.

D’Agostino has also conducted a pilot study in Indonesia for the Fulbright project, following the agile primates through rugged terrain to observe the creatures, which are among the 20 species of gibbons currently listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as threatened, endangered or critically endangered.

D’Agostino said he’s thankful that SIU has been very supportive of him and his research. Recently, he was chosen as one of the six recipients of the 2017 Graduate Professional Student Council Research Awards, which will also provide financial assistance for his research.

“I have loved my experience here at SIU, working with supportive faculty and staff to enable me to do something very important to the human species – hypothesis-driven scientific research,” D’Agnostino said. “I’m very honored to accept this prestigious scholarship and become a member of the Fulbright family. This experience is professionally and personally rewarding.”

After completing his Fulbright project and his doctorate at SIU, D’Agnostino said he plans to become an anthropology professor and “continue doing research until my brain and body cannot do it anymore.”

(Editors: Please note related news release, also distributed to you today, on Ulrich H. Reichard, associate professor of anthropology, and his gibbons research.)