Monkey Forest Tales: How to star to start samplings in a new field site?

Finca El Silencio, Cumaral, Meta, Colombia

During the last week I was talking with the owners in a new farm (El Silencio, for more info here) to start doing some new samplings focus on Brumback’s night monkeys. While there some students approach me and ask about what it is need it to start samplings in a new field site.

A lot of the logistics depends on the type of question you will try to answer, the animals of study, amount of time you require to answer your question and the type of field site you are going to sample. For example, places with continuous forest inside of national parks, will require several months of permit arrangements as well as travel arrangements as most of these areas are far from central areas or near to cities, at least most national parks in Colombia.

Areas like the Zocay Project where samplings are in private farms, also requires some planning in terms of logistics for traveling, accommodation and food. But mainly it will require a previous visit to know the place and see if it is suitable for your study as well as to know and personally talk with the landowner and sometimes farms workers, depending on the question.

But, probably the most important part, especially if you want to sample for long term is to talk with the landowners about the objectives of your project as well as talk about the expectations that they may have about you work and how that can benefit them and their farm. Additionally, to be honest about your project aims and how you are going to use the information, it is important that you build trust with the landowner, workers and local people in general. Trust can be challenging to build depending on the are and the history of that area, but if you go constantly to the area, talk and listen to the people and treat them with the same respect that you want to be treat it, you not only will build trust but a long time friendship that benefit both.

It is important to understand from the beginning the kind of project you want to do. In the case of Zocay Project as the main objective is to monitor monkey populations in the long term, it means for several years, and as monkeys usually live more than 20 years, you have to have this time frame in mind if that is the purpose of your project. Initially Zocay project was conceived as a short- term density project of 6 months, but the interest and willingness of the landowners and the trust we built together had allowed this project to last 16 years in the farm in which it was start it

Zocay Project had included different farms in different years depending on the willingness of landowners and resources with some years in which we have survey new farms for short periods of time while other had been surveys for several years. Both cases had produced important data used to understand the monkeys population dynamics in fragmented areas of the piedmont of Colombian Llanos.

So, if you want to include a new field site in  you project or just start a project in a new area, the most important part is to build trust with the people you are going to work nearby and be aware of the logistic, history of the area and questions you want to answer and a lot of patience…

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Monkey Forest Tales: What is the difference of working with monkeys in the field and laboratory

Another question that sometimes students ask me is how different is to work with monkeys in the field and in laboratories. In this matter my experience is more limited as most of my experience is with monkeys in the field. However, I have done research in which we collected samples in the field from wild monkeys to analyzed in the laboratory. So I will talk about this can of projects on this post.

When you combine fieldwork and laboratory to answer questions about nutrition or genetics, you have to be prepare to work in the field collecting samples, unless you have other people collecting those samples for you, and you also have to prepare and have access to the equipment and supplies for your laboratory analysis. Both implies to be aware of the logistics for both environments as well as to check you have all the materials you need to collect and process the samples.

In the project I worked that involved both field and laboratory work, most of the differences were related to the environment conditions for both places. During fieldwork we needed to be aware of weather conditions as I was working in a temperate zone with high seasonal changes in temperature, as well as be aware of having with me all the materials we need to collect the samples and preserve them until they reach the laboratory.

Collecting the samples were challenging due to the rough terrain an it requires a close observation of the monkeys as we were collecting fecal samples. So we need to be patience, observe careful and be ready to collect the samples. As we were collecting samples from japanese macaque, samples were mostly on the ground, but people collecting samples from other primates that move mostly on canopy’s trees have to be more creative and observant to be able to collect those samples. For the purpose of that project we need samples freeze until processing the samples, therefore we have to make sure we have a freeze available in the field site or to have ice to maintain the samples in the correct temperature until it reached the laboratory.

Laboratory work also requires to pay attention to different steps in detail to have access to equipment and supplies for all the analysis. As I was working on a different country and in a different language, most of the challenges from that project rise from cultural and language barriers.

So as you see working in different environments requires that you became adaptable to those environments but also to be patience and persistent.

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Monkey Forest Tales: What is the difference of working with monkeys between fragmented and continuous forest

Sometimes when talking with students there are questions about how different is to work with monkeys in different types of forest, how different is to work in a fragmented area versus a continuous forest. Today’s post is about this topic from my personal perspective.

When I started working with monkeys, I did it in a continuous forest, but when I started Zocay Project, monkeys were in a fragmented area. Continuous forest usually have higher canopies than fragmented areas and the canopy is more dense and continue. Therefore, monkeys have more places to hide and if they are scared they can climb higher too.

Terrain conditions in fragmented and continuous forest can be rough, with small hills and swamp areas to walk in, so they can both be challenging sometimes depending on were they are located.

Along the Amazon river, at least in the border area between Colombia, Brazil and Peru, forest can be different depending on the season. For example during rainy season when the river water is high and the forest along the river is flooded. Following monkeys can be difficult and usually you will need a small canoe to follow them. By those same monkeys can be followed by walking when is the dry season and the river water is low.

Usually when working with monkeys in continuous forest you work inside or nearby to indigenous communities so you usually also work with some of the hunters in those communities that helps you as local guides to help you find the monkeys you are studying.

When working in fragmented areas, you follow monkeys in forest fragments surrounded by people (peasant, indigenous, farmers, etc.), therefore, you also have to work with people from different education and interests that may or may not like the monkeys you are working with.

Forest fragments can have thick areas difficult to access, but good for monkeys to hide, so despite of forest fragment sizes, sometimes monkeys are difficult to find. Also working in fragmented areas means that you have to work sometimes closer to roads or near to crops and other activities that make the monkeys more nervous and difficult to follow.

So as you see working in continuous and fragmented forest have some challenges depending on the terrain as well as how much people is nearby. Both are rewarding once you manage to habituate the group of monkeys you want to follow or just every time you see them. And on both the most important thing to have in mind is to be persistent and patience with yourself.

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Monkey Forest Tales: When monkeys appear?

Today we are going to talk about when monkeys appear in this world and what we know about the first monkeys who live in our planet. If you remember your biology class, you probably remember a little about evolution, which is the theory explaining how animals evolve from just one cell to organisms as complex as us. This theory proposed that at some point we have a common ancestor with all primates (for more information about what we call a primate, see here).

Well, that first primates were a diverse group of mammals, some were the size of a mouse while others were more like a fox size mammals,  originated during the Eocene period (54- 34 million years). With diurnal and nocturnal habits, mainly eating insects and fruits, the larger ones probably eating leaves too. Some use quadrupedal movements and others were specialized for leaping.

Fossils from those early primates are known from Europe, North Africa and Asia which had a tropical climates during that period. There is not an only answer of how primates reached South America, but the first records are from the Oligocene, 34-23 millions of years. It seems primates reached South America by rafting from Africa or North America, with the oldest fossil from at least 30 million years.

During Pliocene period primates diversify across all continents. Most fossil vrecords of monkeys from South America came from the Miocene period in different localities of Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Brazil and the Caribbean. Most modern monkeys of South and Central America seems to be originated during late Miocene, around 12 – 13 millions of years. Those fossils came from a location closer to the Amazon Basin, in La Venta. Most of these fossils are similar to squirrel monkey, tamarins, sakis, howlers and nocturnal monkeys.

During Pleistocene, monkeys in South America retrieve to some refugees due to climate changes that reduced forest cover. After that, when forest refugees expanded, some populations of some species had diversify so much that became different species, like the ones present today.

Species in the study areas all seems to have been diversify from species from the Amazon region, who dispersed north towards the more fragmented gallery forest of the Llanos, according to molecular data.

Defler, T.R. 2004. Primates of Colombia. Conservation International, tropical field guide series.

Fleagle, J.G. 1999. Primates adaptation and evolution. Academic Press.

Strier, K.B. 2007. Primates Behavioral Ecology. Pearson Education, Inc.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Challenges of doing ecological and behavioral studies with monkeys in the field?

A couple of weeks ago we talk about what are the challenges of counting monkeys, in today’s post we are going to talk about a similar subject, what are the challenges of doing ecological and behavioral studies.

Doing ecological and behavioral studies with monkeys usually implies that you have to follow one or more groups of monkeys to answer your question and that is not always easy, especially in wild habitats. This kind of studies usually have an initial part of habituation of the monkey group you are going to follow and depending on the species the time to reach habituation can be different. Other factors influencing the habituation process are the context in which the monkeys live.

For example, areas were hunting is high can make monkeys more scared and difficult to habituate, an probably not always wise to habituate them if that will means the animals will lost their fear to a potential predator, us.

Also, if you are habituating a group of monkeys in fragmented areas, monkeys are usually more nervous because of domestic dogs, cars and humans and those factors can make the habituation process longer than expected.

Habituation also implies spending long days with the monkeys to earn their trust, this also means long walks looking for that group you want to study and it also implies all the discomfort that comes with working in a tropical forest.

After habituation, you actually need to follow the monkeys and depending on the question, you will need to follow the group for several days from sunrise to sunset for several days. Just remember to standardized the time you spend with the group every month so you will be able make comparisons between months. And enjoy the time monkeys share with you.

And the last part of the process is actually analyze the data you collect when following those monkeys and answering the question you propose at the beginning of your study. And Finally and something that most of us in science use to pursue publish the results of your study.

Something I will like to remember from all those challenges is to be persistent despite the hard work and difficult conditions and remember to enjoy the time with the monkeys. Since is fun despite the challenges and in some ways it is also a privilege that not many people have as we can spend time looking at some of the most amazing and intelligent animals on earth.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Why monkeys hide?

Over the past days while talking with my mother, she asks me why monkeys hide? It not exactly that monkeys hide, is just that somedays when you are looking for monkeys in the forest you aren’t luck enough to see them not just that they hide on purpose so you cannot see them…or maybe yes (I always wonder…)
When you follow monkeys or even when you just go primate watching (monkeys sighting as you do with birds) there is always a possibility that you don’t see those monkeys you are looking for. Why? Well sometimes you just pass under them without seeing them, some other times, no matter how much you walk you just cannot find them.
They are not hiding on purpose, they just continue with their lives and although some species have more cryptic behavior than others, those cryptic behaviors have been used to avoid predators or to find quite places to rest during day or nighttime. The thing with observing wildlife in their habitats is that you sometimes can see them but other times not and that is also part of the fun of being in wild habitats.
When studying monkeys this can be frustrating as well as rewarding at the same time, it all depends on how persistent you are at looking for the monkeys you are studying. When I started, over 26 years ago, I spent hours looking for the red howler monkeys I used to study, sometimes I found them, but they just move a little bit and I lost them. To find them again a few hours later just a few meters from the place where I saw them in the first time. But that also happens 10 years later while I was studying Colombian squirrel monkeys in the study area of this project and I used to walk several kilometers a day to finally found my study group at down close to the house where I was staying…
When studying monkeys in fragmented areas, you may think that seeing the monkeys is easier because of the small forest areas, they don’t have many places to hide, but the true is that even on those small forest fragment they always find tall trees where they can climb to rest on the sun or small areas full of vines and lianas so thick they can hide from any curious human.
In areas where they are hunted they climb tall trees and run as fast as they can every time they see a human approaching or stay very still and quiet in tall trees covered by vines and lianas which protect them from any predator, including us.
So, if you ever visit a forest, not matter if it is a big or small forest and you are looking for monkeys, to study them or just to enjoy seeing them, don’t get discourage if you don’t see them the first time, is part of the fun of looking monkeys in their habitat. And if you are lucky enough you not only will see them but also will spent some amazing time discovering all the wonderful behaviors they have while living their daily lives. Studying monkeys is a privilege that live give you and I have being blessed enough to spent some of the most amazing days of my live looking at those wonderful creatures that shares the world with us and hope you have the opportunity to do it someday too…
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Monkey Forest Tales: Monkeys strategies to survive in the study area

In today’s post we are going to discuss some of monkeys strategies to survive in the fragmented study area. Each monkey species responds in different ways to the transformation of their habitat as well as how to use the new habitats surrounding them.
For example, in the study area dusty titi monkeys responds differently depending on how big are the forest fragments in which they live, how much people live around and how big are the pastures or crops present in the area. Also, their use of living fences during their daily activities varies according to the variables explained before. So in areas with small (10 – 50 ha) and medium (50 – 100 ha) forest fragments they use living fences occasionally and mainly to move from one fragment to another, while in areas closer to towns and tiny fragments (less than 10 ha) they use living fences and isolated trees more often and even during the day they rest and groom while in those living fences.
Red howler monkeys, Colombian squirrel monkeys and black-capped capuchins are more flexible and use crops, isolates trees, living fences, small fragments and in some cases even house roofs as part of their territories and in some cases this is why they become a problem in some areas.
Those differences are related with each monkeys species behavior and ecology. So, what can we do to improve their probabilities to survive in those fragmented – productive areas. First and probably the most important action any landowner can do is to protect forest areas, especially those around water courses that not only allows monkeys, but other wildlife to survive but also provides services to their crops and domestic animals, such as water and pollinators.
As we have mentioned before, presence of living fences and isolated trees are important to improve connectivity of forest fragments in agricultural areas. In urban areas is important to not only allow animals, including monkeys, to access natural vegetation present in those areas, usually around water courses, but also provide canopy bridges and other wildlife passes. In the study area, canopy bridges are important species on tertiary and secondary roads. However, most of the canopy bridges observes in some areas of the study area of these project doesn´t seems to consider basic features of the animal such as size and weight.
A preliminary analysis done for the study area of this project and some of the towns nearby have shown that up to know abundance of all diurnal species depend mainly on how big the forest fragments are and how far those fragments are from towns and cities combined (Carretero-Pinzón, 2016). This is an important point when planning conservation areas for all the monkeys species present in the study area and give some basic guidance on how land use (crops, roads, infrastructure can be planned) in a way that doesn’t interrupt and degrade more the already degraded areas present in the study area.
Carretero-Pinzón, 2016. Conservation planning for primate communities in rapidly transforming landscapes. Doctorate Thesis. The University of Queensland.
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Monkeys Forest Tales: Challenges of counting monkeys?

Today’s post we are going to discuss some challenges of counting monkeys in different types of forest. Counting monkeys is an important part of understanding the demographics and conservation status of monkeys populations, especially when you do it several times at several places. This information can give you information about what is happening with a monkey population in one moment and through several years. It is also valid for other animals, but as this is a monkey blog we will focus on monkeys.
When counting monkeys some challenges are present that have to do with the terrain in which you are counting them, other issues comes from some specific behavioral features from the species you are looking at and some other issues comes from the observer experience…
Let’s start with the challenges that are associated with the terrain. Usually when counting monkeys, we relied basically on our vision and sometimes hearing to find the monkeys. Therefore, visibility is an important factor that influence how easily we can see the monkeys and count them. Also, counting monkeys in flooded areas is different than in terra firme, or mountain areas. Depending on how rough the terrain is, accessibility to some part of forest are different and that influence the number of monkeys we encounter and how easily we can count them.
For example, in the study area, fragments towards the Serrania (Southeast of San Martin town) are located in small hills, with some streams surrounded by deep falls due to erosion. So, you have to be careful not to fall and break an ankle. Other fragments are located in swamp areas where walking is difficult and during rainy season sometimes impossible to walk. In the Amazon, on the other hand, during rainy season some areas are only accessible by canoe. Each one represents a different challenge in terms of how you move and design you study to count monkeys.
Other challenges are associated with specific behavioral features from the species you are trying to count. For example, there are some species like dusky titi monkeys who have a cryptic behavior. They hide when they see people, especially in areas where there is high human activity. Therefore, counting them sometimes require visiting the same forest fragment several times to corroborate the number of individuals. In the Amazon other species of titi monkeys and tamarins take advantage of thick understory as well as very tall trees (more than 25 m of height) which reduce your visibility to hide and make counting of these species more challenging. However, patience is always our best friend when working counting monkeys.
Finally, another common challenge of counting monkeys is related with observer experience. At the beginning, it is always good to count monkeys with another observer: hunters, indigenous and local people are always great to learn how monkeys sound and to learn clues that help you identify monkey’s species. Hunters, indigenous and people who live close to forest or in the forest have their eyes and ears adapted to forest sounds and that is always helpful when counting monkeys, especially at night and in big forest. Observers with many years of experience usually develop more sensible eyes and ears to detect monkeys, but it will require time, persistence and patience.
So, as you see counting monkeys can be challenging but always fun, you just need to be patience and persistence and you will see them and be able to count them…
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Monkey Forest Tales: What Zocay Project had teach me personally?

Today’s post is again a personal one. When you are coordinating a research project there are many personal lesson learned not only from the animals/ ecosystems/ landscapes you study, but also from the students/ volunteers/ interns/ colleagues and local people with who you work with…
You not only learn about how to solve logistical and funding problems, you also learn what are your limits, became more flexible and tolerant with yourself and others. As Zocay Project is located on private farms, you also need to learn how to communicate with local people, farm workers and landowners, who not always have all the same education and shared interest.
Students, volunteers and interns teach you about your own limits, how to teach one to one, something that now I found more rewarding from a personal perspective, and how to deal with different personalities. It also teach you what past experiences you had are more important for your personal and professional growth and which of those you will like your students experience and which ones you can advise them to avoid, when they hear your advice.
Probably one the more challenging learnings of having a field research, and one that you learn when you design, implement and executes a research project in the field and/ or in a laboratory, is to manage the logistics and funding of your project.
A field research implies coordinating food, accommodations, transport (international, national, regional and/ or local), health insurance (at least for yourself), and in some cases permits and visa for you and your team. All that logistics is time consuming and sometimes undervalued when you are designing and implementing your research. So you also learn skills like time, money, staff and organization management, even if you are not aware that you are learning how to do this. This are some skills that you can transfer later if you don’t follow the academia path and you prefer to go for an industry, NGO or government job.
Although designing and implementing your own long-term research project is not for all and it is not easy to do, it is rewarding and an amazing learning process. So if you will like to do it, just remember to be patient, especially with yourself, and keep going despite the challenges and sometimes problems…
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Monkey Forest Tales: For how long is Zocay Project going to last?

In today’s post I’m going to be more personal to talk about a question I get from so many people over the years, including family, friends and landowners…For how long is Zocay Project going to last?
As many answers in life, the answer will depend on many factors. For sure I will be looking for monkeys and visiting places to see monkeys until my body and health allow me to do it. Zocay Project on the other hand, will depends in some ways on the wiliness of the landowners and their families to allow me to visit their farms and see the monkeys found in their forests.
While preparing a talk last week for the Woman and Girls in Science Day, I looked at my past experiences finding resources to study and to get Zocay Project running and although I never get a big funding for the project, I did have some funding for small parts of this project, as well as funding for my studies.
Keeping a long term project means a lot of money, effort and sometimes long hours of brainstorming not only for project ideas that can keep the funding running but also time to spend with landowners explaining those ideas and finding common grounds and topics that can be useful for them as well as the project, and more important finding solutions to conflicts that can occur because of the close proximity in which monkeys are living with human activities.
So, one of the things I realize while preparing that talk was that not only I had spent a lot of resources and energy putting this project as a priority in my life, but I also had spent a lot of time. For a couple of years I had been thinking about some kind of retirement for me and although I know for sure I will never going to stop looking for places to see monkeys, sometimes I wonder if it is time to close this part of my life that Zocay Project started almost 16 years ago… But then, a question rises of what else can I do? I cannot imagine my live without monkeys in it and all the question that they always generate on my mind…So, for now Zocay project will continue at least for this year and hopefully I will find the energy to continue for more years to come
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