Monkey Forest Tales:  Importance of Trees in our lives and the lives of the monkeys we study

In today’s post we are going to talk about some reflections about trees. On October 12th we celebrate the World Day of Trees and we usually don’t think too much about those being that give us shadow, help to maintain the oxygen in our atmosphere and give us sap, fruits and wood. Trees are also important in monkeys lives because they depend on them for food, places to rest during the day and sleep during night. Keep them safe from predators in the ground and hidden them from predators in the sky. Sometimes it seems they are just there, but we didn’t realize how important they are for our wellbeing and the wellbeing of other animals, including our livestock.

I probably didn’t pay much attention to them until I started working with monkeys and notice how much food they provide them. Because the first monkeys I ever studied, red howler monkeys, are also ones that spend most of their live on trees and try to avoid going to the ground as much as possible, I also started to notice how trees became moving routes for monkeys and other animals that depends on them, as well as places to hide, from me and predators…

Over the years I also develop some kind of continuous interest of knowing their identities and a bit of their own ecology. On my visits to forest from other countries I notice their differences and similarities with the ones we have in Colombia, especially the ones in the Amazon and Orinoquian region. And I pick some of my favorites…ceibas, jacarandas, avichures, cedros…

Tree gives can give us some sort of security feeling while working on the forest and for me some species became tokens that make me feel safe because I know which species they are and the type of forest in which they use to be found.

A recent report showed than around 45 % percent of plant species in Colombia, including several tree species are in danger to disappear and it seems to me that this report doesn’t get the attention it should have. For a country with a high diversity of plants such as Colombia, this should be more a concern to all of us, especially when the government is promoting tree planting as a strategy to take care of the environment and fight against climate change. However, the list of the species recommended by our environmental ministry for tree planting is of around 40 species and some of those are common species. Although is not my field of expertise, it seems important to me to mention and dedicate a post on how limited the focus is we give to trees in our lives and how sad is to see the lack of attention we pay to the beings that allow us to continue living in this planet.

So, if you have trees near to your house, in your local park or farm, let take a moment to learn about them and be grateful they are planted in those places for all us to enjoy and benefit from them.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Importance of landscape perspective when studying primates in fragments

In today’s post we are going talk about why is so important to look and study the landscape when studying and working with monkeys in fragmented landscapes. Although there are a few excellent papers from pioneer researchers who promote the use of the landscape perspective when studying monkeys in fragments. There is still some resistance to incorporate those concepts in practice.

Over the past two decades, studies of monkeys in fragments had changed their focus from looking the monkeys living in fragment as populations living in isolated island to understand that monkeys use the landscapes around those fragments and that those elements in the landscape affect the survivorship and the use that monkeys give to each fragment in the area. However, methodologies and concepts used from other disciplines such as landscape ecology, remote sensing, and GIS has been only partially implemented in the study of primates in fragments. A pattern that is clearly different from other groups of animals such as birds, reptiles, and even other mammals.

The reason why is so important to look at the landscape surrounding those fragments in which our monkeys live is because those surroundings affect the way they see their environment. Aspect such as composition of the landscape, or what kind of uses (crops, plantations, houses, roads, pastures, etc.) are around fragments, as well as the spatial organization of those uses and the history of how those process occur are some of the factors that influence how monkeys respond in those fragmented landscapes.

Those same studies also recommend conserving the habitat that is available as forest fragments, including small ones (< 1 ha), living fences and isolated trees as part of the landscapes because those are structure used by monkey to move between fragments. Another mitigation actions that are widely recommended is to increase habitat, connect it and improve their quality as for some species what is inside of the forest fragments is as important as what you find around it. Lastly, another factor influencing presence and abundance of the species (how many animals of each species are present in a forest fragment) is the history of transformation and activities that occurs on the landscapes that are surrounding those forest fragments.

So, if you have a farm in which you have monkeys living in forest fragments, implement activities to reduce wood extraction, and cattle entrance as those affects forest quality. Also, as much as possible don’t reduce the amount of forest from the fragment you have and try to use living fences, isolated trees and systems such as silvopastoral and agroforestry practices that increase connectivity between forest fragments. Protect riparian forest and increase connectivity of those important areas as they also provide water for your property and animals as well as for wildlife.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Language barriers in science

Today’s post we are going to talk about language barriers in science. I know it looks a bit odd as I’m not a native English speaker but I’m writing in English. A recent paper in Nature talking about the barriers that Latin- American researchers have when doing science make me think about my own experiences. Although I agreed with all the points made by the authors on that paper. I also think there are some points we need to address as Latin Americans, especially in terms of the ways English is teach in our countries, especially in Colombia. English is seen in many schools, public and private, as something to be afraid of, which put even more barriers in how we learn it and how we feel when we are faced to use it in all its forms: written, spoken, and listened.

I grow up with certain advantages, I had taken English classes since I was a kid, although I neve studied in a bilingual school, so in some ways my ears had been exposed to English since a young age. One factor that I think is important to the process of learning any language. However, as most of not native- English speakers, I have a strong accent and I still make grammar mistakes while writing and speaking English. However, when I must live in an English-speaking country, I have to face all my fears and shame of speaking bad English in order to live. One thing that help me was to understand that English was my second language and as such it was ok to make mistakes. It was a learning process, so as a friend told me, some years back, I shouldn’t be ashamed of that, and I always can improve.

However, I think part of the problem, why it is so difficult to publish in English for not- native speakers, apart from prejudices and preconceptions from native English speakers that are real, and we all face them. It is our own fears to misinterpretation and shame of reading and writing in English. As well as some laziness from younger students, especially to read and write in English. Yes, I know it is difficult to learn it but one of the problems I notice in my students is some laziness to read in English and even in Spanish, something that for me is a requirement for being able to write, in English or Spanish.

So, in my experience some of the things that are helpful to write in English is just to do it, practice daily, practice to write anything, have a journal of your thoughts in English, read English every day, listen to music and watch movies in English every day. I will say that can be applied to any language, although in my experience, it doesn’t work well when I was trying to learn Japanese…may be because of the different written symbols…But works with languages such as Portuguese, French, and Italian.

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Monkeys Forest Tales: Some thoughs about work – life balance

Today’s post is again a personal one. Today we are going to talk about a bit about work-life balance in science. We will talk about why it is so important to get a work – life balance not only in science, but in any discipline, you work in and a bit of my life experience with trying to get that work- life balance that is so important for our health and well-being.

Life has its own way of showing you when you are not living a life that is in balance. Usually, your body give you signs in ways of fatigue, headaches or pain in other parts of your body, lack of sleep and other kind of signs that you should pay attention. But, when you are young, you usually don’t pay any attention…

When I was studying biology, work-life balance wasn’t something we talk about, actually, my days were longer than 12 hours, reading and making essays and reports…I didn’t realize the importance of having a work- life balance until I was doing my master. At that moment, I was studying and working at the same time and didn’t have much of a life. My days pass with a strict routine and a lot of work stress, until my body started to give me alarms. My stress levels were too high that my body collapsed, and I get my first notice…and I finished in a hospital…

Usually, for me to get balance in my life, I need forest and especially monkeys. It seems that combination is my perfect energy recharger. It gives me so much energy that I sometimes forget that I must be careful to not overwork. When you are a scientist and you are pursuing a career in academy, is common and even reinforced that to be successful, you need to overwork all the time, you need to work longer hours and not get holiday or free time. It is a wide culture that it is promoted by the system. Except by some smart people…

While I was doing my doctorate, I had the fortune to have an adviser who is also a great human being, who take the time to talk to you not only about work, but also about how to enjoy live and who usually, motivate you do social activities at the same time that you were doing your work. He tried to teach me a lot about work – life balance, I didn’t always listen to him, but I learned to appreciate what we did for me at the time.

Although I was aware of the importance of work- life balance, I did have another notice from my body during that time. This time wasn’t that bad, and I didn’t go to the hospital, thanks to my support system of friends and my supervisor. However, life has its own way to make us forget that you need to have other things apart from work, things like hobbies, family, sports, pets, etc. that help you relax and enjoy simple things of life… Now, my body is giving me another notice, still don’t know how bad it is this time, but make me wonder of how much I really have learned about work – life balance and if I had been smart enough to teach my own students to have that work – life balance in their lives.

So, the message I want to give you with this post is to really stop to think about how balanced your life is now and don’t wait until life and your body teach you that lesson. Spend time with your families and friends, take time to learn new things and have hobbies. Be active and practice any sport if that motivates you. Yes, work is important and making a good job is important, but don’t overwork, don’t burn out yourself with work, that will never give you back the time that you can spend with the people you love and the things you love to do…

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Monkeys Forest Tales:  Celebrating Biodiversity Day!!

In today’s post we are going to talk about biodiversity day that was celebrated this week around the world. It is a day to celebrate how diverse is the natural world and for a country like Colombia, which has one of the highest biodiversity in the world is also a day to raise awareness of the biodiversity crisis we are living right now.

Over the past decades more animals and plants have been disappearing because of the effect that our activities do on the environment. One of the things we usually don’t think about is how everything we do in our daily activities affect the environment around us. For example, every morning when we take a shower, think about the amount of water you are using, and it is not about having or not the money for paying the water bill, is about to think of where that water come from. It is about not throw out any garbage near to the rivers, streams, lakes and ocean. It’s also about be aware of what we buy and where those things come from.

Biodiversity day celebration is also about enjoy how diverse live is and how that diversity gives us so many benefits. For example, the fact that there are many species of bee means that there are many different bees pollinizing the flowers from the plants we get our food from. Also, how much we can benefit and enjoy the diversity of birds, butterflies, frogs, and mammals we have near to our homes.

In a country like Colombia, which is one of the most biodiversity countries in the world, it is also a celebration of what we have and why we should protect it for future generations. We are after all the most diverse country in birds and one of the most diverse in palms, frogs, orchids, trees, butterflies, reptiles and mammals. So let’s remember and celebrate the high diversity we have and make everything we can to protect it and to teach our kids to protect it for the future…

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Monkey Forest Tales: What is a threatened species and what is the Threatened Species Day?

In today’s post we are going to talk about a threatened species, it’s meaning for us as humans and what is the threatened species day. Let’s start with some general information about threatened species.

What it means that a species in threatened? This basically means that the species number and usually it’s distribution (i.e., where is possible to found it) is so low that it’s probabilities to disappear from the planet is moderate to high. In science there is a series of categories to classify how threatened a particular species is. These categories are used to raised awareness, get funding to study and conserve those species and as a way to keep track on how well our actions are helping them or not to recover. There three categories are: critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable, depending on how high the probability is for those species to disappear in the near future.

Zocay project includes two vulnerable species and one vulnerable subspecies, all of which had a reduced and restricted distribution in Colombia: dusky titi monkey, which is only found in Meta department and a small part of Cundinamarca department; Brumback nigh monkey, which in found in the piedmont of Meta, Casanare, y Arauca, and possibly in Vichada. Lastly the Colombian squirrel monkey which is found in the piedmont of Meta, Casanare, and Arauca.

But what it means for us that a species was threatened, it means that the species is going to disappear in the near future. But why is important that we don’t loss species. All species of fauna and flora are important for the good functioning of all the ecosystems. We couldn’t have forest and water without all the animals and plants that made our environment healthy and enjoyable, even if the water and the forest in not next to you.

I first her of the Threatened Species Day when I was studying in Australia, it is an important day there as it is used to create awareness in the general public about all the species that are threatened and have a probability to disappear, especially in the next generation. It is also celebrated the day the last Tasmanian tiger disappear from earth, one of the last marsupial carnivorous who disappear because of human actions. Now it is celebrated in other countries too, as a way to raise awareness of all the species of plants and animals that are at risk of disappear around the world.

Why is this important, not only because all the species have their own right to life in this planet, but also because we all have the responsibility to preserve life in any form for the future… so let’s not forget that we all can do something to conserve the species that lives around us but also a responsibility with the future generations…

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Monkey Forest Tales: Celebrating International Primate Day!!!

This week in September 1srt, we celebrated International Primate Day, a day to raise awareness about these amazing, diverse and charismatic animals that help us to grow forest and protect water through their function as seed dispersers. In today’s post we highlight their function and remember what we have learned from the monkey species present in our study area.

Monkeys are important for forest conservation because they disperse seeds from all the fruits they consume, they are also important in controlling some herbivorous caterpillars. They consume a wide range of arthropods, including spiders, moths, grasshoppers, and other insects. They also transformed the microhabitats inside the forest by breaking branches and moving stones, branches, and dead leaves on the ground in search for arthropods to eat.

Over the years, during our work in Zocay Project we have also learned that they use not only the forest, but also the living fences, isolated trees and small fragments to move in the highly fragmented landscape in which they live, all five species in the study area used these structures with different frequencies. They even use pastures and wire fences to move between patches if they have to reach some fruit trees.

Recently, we also learned that during, strong and long dry seasons, they can also use the water reservoirs used by cattle ranchers to maintain water for their cattle when streams are completely dry. It is widely, known that monkeys can also exploit human crops when they don’t have fruits in the forest, causing strong conflicts with human populations living nearby.

But how can you protect them, is easier than you can imagine. Some small practices that you can implement if you are living close to wild monkeys are:

  • Preserve any natural habitat around your area, especially those around streams and water sources. FOREST MEANS LIFE
  • DO NOT FEED WILD MONKEYS!!, instead plant fruit trees in the areas you know they live
  • If you have a crop near to a forest fragment where you know there are primates. DO NOT PLANT YOUR CROP NEXT TO THE FOREST EDGE. Leave at least 50 meters between the forest edge and your crop, this will reduce your crop loss. Although you will probably need to implement additional strategies if some species live in the area.
  • DO NOT LEAVE ANY PACKAGES OR PESTICIDE RESIDUALS CLOSE TO THE FOREST EDGES OR NEAR TO THE WATER. This will pollute water and soil nearby.
  • Promote living fences that allows connectivity between forest fragments as well as isolated trees in pastures. This not only will give your livestock shadow but also allows monkeys and other native fauna to move between forest patches
  • Reduce speed in roads where forest cover will allow monkeys and other fauna to move. If you see a wild animal (monkey or other) crossing a road, STOP, DON’T KILL THEM
  • Enjoy wild animals in their natural habitat. DO NOT KEEP THEM AS PETS. They are not good pets; most species grow and became aggressive or develop repetitive behavior because of their isolations from other members of their species. They are social animals as we are.

If you have questions or want to know what to do to protect and conserve monkeys in your area. Please don’t hesitate to write at xcarretero@zocayproyect.com. You can leave your questions in English, Spanish or Portuguese.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Working with locals and getting help from them to collect data

Working in countries where social unrest and political insecurity is part of our daily lives means that research is not always possible using standard methodologies. This means we usually need to relay in local people from those unstable remote areas to collect the data need it. It also means you need to be flexible enough to train them and learn to trust in the data they collect. So, in today’s post I was to talk a bit about this topic.

Over the years I had worked with local people from different backgrounds and education, who had help me and other researcher to collect important data to understand monkey’s ecology and behavior. Although not always easy and sometimes conflicting, local people is an important part of research in many remote and dangerous parts. With time you learn to choose the people who is committed to collect good quality data and who really care about your research and not only the money you give them.

Training is an important part of that process, as well as taking the time to learn about their lives and hear what worries them. One element that for me seems to be clear of working with indigenous people, peasants or cattle rancher is that they all want to improve their lives and not necessarily do that while destroying the environment. Most of them are aware of the importance that forest have to preserve water on their lands and even some of them care about the wildlife living in their land. So, an important part of doing research with them is to hear their concerns and find solutions to their problems at the same time we preserve wildlife in those areas.

However, working with local people also have some limitations. Most of the time those limitations came from not enough training for data collection and a miscommunication about why is so important that data is collected in certain ways and with certain detail. All this can be overcome by making sure to train them well and explain to them in the simplest language possible why is important for them as well as for us the information they are collecting.

In our current global situation, COVID19 pandemics, collaborations and data collected by local people is even more important due to travel restrictions and general health situation. Today, most countries also have reduced economic stability, making even more important to involve local people on our research not only as a support to their local economies but also as a measure to control the spread of the new variations of the virus, an increase protection for the local wildlife. Research funding to cover those expenses are not always easy to get, however new technologies can help to increase our access, communication, and training possibilities if we are flexible enough to incorporate them.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Importance of learning about plants and arthropods when studying monkeys

Today’s post is about the importance of leaning about plants and arthropods while studying monkeys, especially if you are interested in ecology and feeding behavior of this incredible animals.

Most species of primates (monkeys, lemurs and apes) consume plant parts (fruits, flowers, leaves) and arthropods in different quantities every year. When studying their feeding behavior an important part of describing that behavior is to know the identity of the plant from which they are consuming a fruit, flower or leave, as well as the identity of the arthropod group they are consuming. Those are elements important to understand how they live and how can we implement effective tools to conserve them in their natural habitat.

However, most of us don’t see the importance of learning from other groups of organisms apart from the ones we like the most, because we focus only on those interesting animals that capture our attention.

Learn from other groups of animals is not always easy, especially if what you need to learn is their taxonomy (how to identify them), so for most of us is a painful process and we usually need help from people expert on those topics to teach us during our fieldwork. Over the years I had learned that taking detailed notes, good quality pictures or drawing, when you are good at that, are useful tool that can make your taxonomy learning easier. Also, ask for help with identifications is important and can help you speed the process. I had been lucky enough to had help from friends over the years who had teach me a lot about plants especially. And during this process I had develop a small and simple photograph guide of plant from the Zocay Project area based on pictures of fruits, leave and sometime flowers of some of the plant that are used by monkeys in the study area.

In this post I want to share with you that picture guide, so you can also use it if it will help you with your plant identifications. Most of the plant are from secondary forest from the piedmont of Colombian Llanos, but some species are also found in the Amazon Forest. I apologize if some of the taxonomy is not updated, as you know I’m not a botanic, so some families may have change in recent years. But still, I think, it can be useful. I have found fruit guide very useful to identify plants when you are not an expert botanic. Please feel free to download it if you need it.

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Monkey Forest Tales: What to do with old data? Collaborate

Sometimes when we collect data, we not always published immediately, it not necessarily is data we will use in the current project. In today’s post we will talk a bit about what to do with all that extra and most of the time old data you have.

Most of my professional life, I had been in the field following monkeys and collecting different types of data. Mostly detailed behavioral and ecological data. This means over the years my databases had grown a lot and some of that data is from a long time ago. So, what to do with that data? How can I publish data from several years, or even decades ago? One option is collaborating with other researchers.

You can compare old data with recent data from the same area or compare old data with data from multiple sites and compare that data with more recent data. If you have spatial data, share that spatial data in repositories, so other researcher looking at historical data can use your old data in multiple year comparisons.

We had been taught that most of the data we collected needs to be published immediately, otherwise it lost its value, but the publishing process is not always easy of fast enough, so we finish with a lot of old data and not always know what to do with it. Sharing data is an important part of doing science that can make science more open, it will depend on all of us to make easier to share raw data, just remember to give credit to the people who collect it, they are as important as the people who analyzed and publish it.

For those of my generation, we all experience at some time unethical practices that makes us guard our data even more carefully than people from new generations, but that shouldn’t stop us to share data collected a few decades ago that can be used to save the animals we study and love. It has been a long and sometimes not so nice process for me, but I still believe there is a lot of opportunities in sharing data, new and old with researcher from different disciplines if we do it based on respect for each other.

So, if you think some of the data of Zocay Project can be used to your project, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I’m sure we can arrange for you to use some of this project data…you just have to ask.

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