Friday, December 31, 2010

A Year in Review

Well in the tradition of sentimentality, I have decided to bypass my feelings that this is too cliche, and share what I got up to this year in the course of my primate research! I hope this gives you a taste of what it is like to be a primatologist!

The research team (3 on the left)
This time last year I was packing up all of my field supplies, saying goodbye to friends and family and my little pomeranian as I was setting out on yet another research adventure. I was flying off to Belize for another 8 months to conduct the field work for my MA in Anthropology.  Overall the fieldwork was extremely challenging but rewarding! The field conditions at our research site are fairly difficult as the spider monkeys move fast and aren't afraid of climbing quickly over steep limestone hills.  After the first couple of weeks getting my "forest legs" back, it got a lot easier! I started getting better at collecting fecal samples and discovered the best way to do get them is to follow the monkeys until they fell asleep, note their locations, then get there early in the morning before they wake up and just stand under their sleeping trees.  Sounds easy, but it invloves waking up at 3:45am and leaving for the bush at 4:40am in order to drive the 20min and hike 15 - 30min into the forest depending on where they bed down.  Over the next few months I was able to collect plenty of data from the howler and spider monkeys with the help of three amazing field assistants (thanks Stevan, Patrick and Franck)!

View from the top of one of the ridges at RCNR
Unfortunately living in another country isn't always easy. In February of last year I lost a friend to gang-related violence in Belize City. He was gunned down  as he was riding his bicycle down the street and to this day his murder remains unsolved. As well, I managed to acquire a staphylococcus spp. infection in my kidneys. I swear this is from swimming in the local river during the dry season, but was resistant to various antibiotics and as a result I had it for four months of my field season.  It was extremely exhausting and painful, but I worked through it and still managed to collect enough data!

Japanese macacques at Arashiyama
After a short return to Canada, I headed off to Japan for the International Primatological Society Congress. The meeting primarily took place in Kyoto, which is one of the main cultural centres in Japan. I learned a lot by attending various talks and got to meet a variety of primatologists with varying specialties.  I presented a poster on infant handling by adult males in Ateles geoffroyi, and got a lot of positive feedback. Aside from the meetings I also got to visit Arashiyama monkey park to visit a group of free-ranging Japanese macacques.  We also spent a day touring Kyoto and saw the beautiful Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple), the bamboo forest, Gion the Geisha district and a variety of other temples dispersed around the city.  Afterwards a friend and I took the shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima in order to visit the museum and exact place that the atomic bomb hit. It was an extremely saddening, but educational experience. We also visited the island of Miyajima and took the gondola up to the top of Mount Misen for an amazing view of the inland sea and were surprised to also see a bunch of wild Japanese macacques.  It was truly an amazing trip.

Some of the damage at RCNR
I was set to start my labwork in October however on the 24th, hurricane Richard hit Belize and our field site directly (see blog post  That night I actually received three texts from the other researcher who was down there and proceeded to worry that something was terribly wrong.  I had heard via twitter that there was a hurricane heading there but it was supposed to be a category 1 and downgrade to a tropical storm at landfall. Unfortunately the hurricane actually gained speed and was more around a category 2 with winds reaching almost 100km and hour. After a little discussion it was decided that I was to fly to Belize the next day and help to assess the damage and find the monkeys.  This was one of the most stressful trips I have taken to Belize. As well we lost a friend to a hurricane-related accident, which was extremely unfortunate.

After returning from Belize I started working in the lab analyzing the fecal samples for parasite cysts, larvae and eggs.  So far I have some fairly interesting findings and I am excited to continue working on the samples in the new year!

Overlooking the inland sea on top of Mount Misen, Japan
Overall, the year was full of excitement and adventure. I can't believe that I have actually only spent 3 months at home! Over the next year I plan to finish my analyses and defend my thesis by August. After that my plans are up in the air. Who knows where this job will take me! Maybe back to Belize for 7 months, or perhaps to another field site...I am not too sure. Whatever I do though, I know I will enjoy every minute of it!  Thanks to all of the people that touched my life this year. I appreciate all of the support, friendship and advice that you give!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Labwork: A necessary evil for a field Anthropologist

Being an Anthropologist means that you take on many different roles. Sometimes you are a field worker, other times a teacher, then others a writer or even a lab worker. All of these roles have their particular purpose and importance, however after coming off of 7 months in the jungle, seeing exciting and amazing things every day, it can be a challenge to change roles and buckle down on your work. Some call this culture shock...personally I call it the shock of the mundane. While you are away in the field you experience so many things that change you, but nothing back home changes at all. Everything is pretty much just as you left it, which almost makes you feel like you never left at all! It is confusing and strange, but is something everyone goes through.

The one thing that you will always have though are those experiences, and at least you can recall those memories at any time to get you through the day. Earlier today as I sat forcing myself to look through the microscope, I was brought back to a time recently when I was in the forest watching an adult female and her male infant foraging on some of the remaining fruit in the forest after the hurricane. The clouds had rolled in and the forest had grown dark, but it didnt matter, I could still see them just fine. After a few minutes I heard the light roar of rain quickly creeping its way through the forest. So reacting as fast as possible I grabbed a small flexible vine hanging from a nearby tree, cut it with my machete, and used it to tie 3 giant palm fronds growing from the ground together to make an umbrella. Typically in the rain, you can lose the monkeys easily, but thanks to the immediate availability of this palm, I was able to stay with them for the next 2 hours as it poured, perfectly dry and comfortable.

It is memories like this that keep me going, because although the lab work is necessary and important, I know that eventually I will be right back in the forest doing the part of the job I love the most.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I Can See You, But I Can Hear You Better: A little known fact about Tarsiers.

Well considering it is Monkey Day 2010, it is a perfect opportunity to promote primate species awareness.  So following in the footsteps of the December issue of the International Journal of Primatology I decided to write about an odd but extremely interesting primate, the Tarsier!

Tarsiers are nocturnal primates that live in the rainforests on the islands of SE Asia.  They are small, with humongous eyes and are most famous for the elongated tarsus bones in their feet (hence the name).  They tend to show variation in their social structure, but typically they are found in small groups with a single adult female, adult male and their dependent offspring [Gursky-Doyen, 2010]. Their diet primarily consists of insects, but occasionally they also eat lizards and small birds. This makes them the only existing fully carnivorous primates!
Tarsiers have been extremely difficult to classify in the Primate order.  This is mainly because they most likely diverged early on in primate evolution and are quite distinct from other primates.  With their big eyes, tarsiers do have a heavy reliance on vision especially for hunting.  However, a recent study found that their auditory cortex is more developed than other primates [Wong et al., 2010].  This suggests that they do rely on auditory cues in their environment more than previously thought. This could be why these little creatures are notoriously difficult to find in the wild.  They literally can hear you from a mile away!

According to the IUCN red list, all species of Tarsiers are vulnerable, with some being endangered.  The loss of habitat in SE Asia due to a high rate of deforestation puts all primates and animals at risk, including the Tarsier.  This deforestation is primarily for the creation of palm oil plantations (SE Asia is the largest producer in the entire world).  Palm oil is actually used in 50 percent of all consumer goods including soaps, detergents, various food products and biofuels. If you want to learn more about Palm Oil and how you can make a difference, check out the website for the Rainforest Action Network (

Also, the International Journal of Primatology has made their publication free access until the end of the year. If you are interested in reading more articles about Tarsiers here is the link for the December issue

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Top 5 Fieldwork Moments

As you may or may not know, December 14th is Monkey Day! So in the spirit of promoting primate species awareness, conservation and research I thought I would share the top 5 favorite moments I have experienced studying primates over the past 2 years.

1. The first time I ever saw a spider monkey in the wild.
Ok this first moment was just before I started studying spider monkeys in Belize, but since it is highly memorable, I couldn't leave it out. I was in the Mayan Riviera at a wedding staying at an all inclusive resort. Now I am not really a resort person at all, so I convinced a few people in the group to take a day excursion to the Mayan ruins at Coba and to go repel into a Cenote and do some ziplining. I was standing at the top of the zipline which went over this large pond in the middle of the rainforest. Accross the way I noticed some rustling in the trees, and saw a subgroup of 3 spider monkeys travelling up the ridge. I was so excited I couldn't even focus on the guide who was giving us instructions on how to zipline!

A chimpanzee in Kibale National Park, Uganda
2. Listening to over a hundred chimpanzees pant hoot in Kibale National Park, Uganda.I woke up to a cool morning just outside of Kibale forest in Uganda. The smell of tea from the surrounding plantations saturated the air. It was raining, and I was worried we weren't going to be able to go see the chimpanzees in one of the largest primate research areas in the world. We took a short drive to the meet up point and luckily the rain had subsided just enough for us to enter the forest. After a 20 minute walk, I had no doubt we had found the tourist group of 107 chimpanzees because the forest was all of a sudden filled with the loud unmistakeable sound of every chimp in the group pant hooting to locate each other in the morning. I stood there in disbelief, because it was one of the most amazing sounds I had ever heard in my entire life.

The monkey bites.
3. Getting bitten by a spider monkey at the Belize Zoo.
Most people probably wouldn't describe this as being one of their favorite moments, but I truly think it is. One of the spider monkeys had escaped while I was trying to introduce it to a new enclosure.  She was hanging outside the enclosure in a cluster of trees but kept coming down to try and pick stuff out of the garbage. So, seeing as she knew me I decided to grab a bunch of bananas and go sit near the garbage in hopes of being able to lead her back into her holding pen. Slowly she began to become interested and came down to the ground and started inching closer to me. Finally she was within reaching distance and I fed her some banana while grooming her with my free hand.  I then was given some advice of one of the keepers to try and lead her by the hand to her holding pen, as this had worked in the past. Unfortunately she wasn't ready to go in yet and decided to give me three warning bites on my right hand. At least I have a cool scar!

4. Seeing a male spider monkey carry an infant for the first time.
In primates, males typically do not invest very much in their infants, especially when mating is promiscuous and paternity is uncertain.  As a result, it is extremely rare to see males carrying infants or even actively trying to interact with infants. I was watching a huge subgroup of spider monkeys by myself and there were individuals coming in and out all over the place.  I looked up and saw a monkey travelling with an infant on its back, but the face didn't fit any of the females I knew in the group.  That's when I saw that it was actually a sub-adult male carrying an infant on its back!!  The male carried the infant more than 40m away from its mother and then proceeded to play and cuddle with the infant.  It was amazing!

An adult female spider monkey with her infant.
5. Watching spider monkeys bed down at RCNR.
These moments are my favorite when watching the spider monkeys.  At night they tend to congregate in specific sleeping areas.  As the females feed, the small and large juveniles congregate in the crutch of one of the big fig trees and play for hours.  Long call vocalizations ring out to communicate with subgroups bedding down at the other sleeping sites in the area.  As the sun sets, the monkeys start to settle into their sleeping trees, the crickets start and the fireflies come out.  It is so relaxing to listen to the forest settle down.  I am thankful every single time I experience this peacefulness.  This is why I do what I do.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Balancing Nature and Research: Why a hurricane may have devastating effects on a spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) population in Belize

The small circular valley. Everything brown is destroyed forest.
 It is hot and muggy, I have been hiking for 5 hours over fallen trees and through mangled jungle. I am climbing one of the steepest hills in the home range of our study group of spider monkeys. This is the one refuge of hope as over this hill, there is a small circular valley surrounded by huge hills, which may have protected the forest. As I climb over the ridge I am awe-stricken. On one side of the valley where large lush trees once stood and where spider monkeys used to play, sleep and forage, the hillside is practically bare. Not one tree is left standing. As the sun beats down, I start to wonder what this means. I had spent 14 months of my life researching these monkeys, and now all of it might come to an end. In the distance I hear the faint sound of a spider-monkey whinny vocalization, which gives me hope that some of them have survived.

The path of Hurricane Richard (in red). RCNR is highlighted in yellow.
On October 24th, 2010 Central Belize was hit by hurricane Richard.  This particular hurricane caught many Belizeans off gaurd as the weather reports had slated it to be a Category 1, which would reduce to a tropical storm upon landfall.  Instead the storm increased speed once it hit land leading to wind speeds over 90km/h. Within 24 hours I was on a plane to check out the damage to our research site at Runaway Creek Nature Reserve (RCNR) and find all of the monkeys.  This is not the first time nature has interfered with our research. In 2001 our black-howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) site in Monkey River was hit by a category 4 hurricane which completely destroyed the forest.  
Luckily due to protection from high karst limestone ridges, some of the forest at RCNR was protected. However, an estimated 40% of the original home range of the spider monkeys was completely destroyed.

Sub-adult female spider monkey.
Black-handed spider monkeys (A. geoffroyi yucatanensis) are found in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and have recently been identified by the IUCN red list as endangered ( As ripe-fruit specialists, spiders are extremely sensitive to habitat disturbance. They are typically the first species to disappear from an area and the last to recover.  As a result, this extreme sudden natural habitat disturbance could potentially cause a severe decline in the Belizean population. Both Peccary Hills National Park and the Manatee Forest Reserve were hit much harder by the hurricane than RCNR. These areas probably house almost 30% of the population of spider monkeys in Belize, not to mention the countless other endangered species of mammals and birds that will be affected. 

This area used to be completely enclosed by canopy.
Although this may seem devastating, I do have some hope for the spider monkeys. Atelines in general tend to show a great degree of flexibility in their behavior, diet and social structure. As a result, it is possible these monkeys will be able to adapt to these extreme environmental changes.  As well, part of the forest was preserved, meaning that there will be some fruit available and they won't have to fully rely on leaves.  Finally, Belize is almost like a magnet for hurricanes, so at some point in the past these areas have been affected and the monkeys are still present.  Even if we do see a decline in the population, it is possible that as the forest recovers, so will they.  Only time will tell.

Penny for your thoughts...

And so it begins, my journey into the world of blogging.  There is no shortage of blogs about animals, but in creating The Primate Chronicles I am creating a venue where I can "nerd out" about primates and hope someone out there listens.  Not only will I review and talk about recent articles and findings in Primatology, I also hope to give readers a taste of what it actually is like to be a Primatologist. So here goes...and hopefully you will enjoy!