Monkey Forest Tales: Why is important to study monkeys?

Why do you study monkeys? Why is important to study them? These are some question that local people and family make me very often. Sometimes these questions have led to a very interesting discussion with local people. I usually start answering these questions with my personal reasons and then explaining why monkeys are important for the forest and therefore for them.

So, why I study monkeys? Because they save my life, they give me a reason to continue living and I fell in love with them. Also, they are charismatic animals so much like us and their babies are cute.

When I decided to study biology, it wasn’t because of the monkeys, it was because I want to dedicate my life to dolphins and whales… and for many years that was my main purpose. But when I enter to the university they start talking about a place, a forest to which you can go and spend a semester studying animals in the jungle…very exciting right!

Well, that was what I though and I decided I want to try, I want to go to that place and spend a semester studying a mammal (a fury animal that drinks milk like us). There were options to study monkeys (I can choose any of the seven species present in that area) or a big bird called curassow. So, I decided for monkeys, specifically for red howler monkeys, I studied the behavior of their babies during their first months of their life. And I fell in love with them.

But, why are monkeys important? Well, they are part of the forest and therefore they have a function in the forest that make that forest work properly. All the species in my study area consume fruits, some species consumed more than others, some of them consume big fruits with big seeds and others consumed small fruits with small seeds.

Every time they eat a fruit and their seeds pass through the monkeys’ digestive system, some of those seeds can pass for a chemical process that accelerate their germination. Therefore monkeys, as well as birds and bats are the farmers of the forest, they disperse the seeds of the fruits they consume.

Also, some monkeys have been called forest engineers, because during their movements in the forest searching for insects (crickets, months, cockroach, beetles), spiders and small lizards, birds and frogs they transform their environment and open new sites for other animals to arrive, and drops sticks and leaves to the ground where they will decomposed and became new nutrients for the trees in that forest.

And why is this important, because if we don’t have new plants in those forest, there will be a time that that forest disappear and without forest, we people, don’t have water.

In an area like the Colombian Llanos where dry season can last up to four months, sometimes without a single drop of water. The forest that remains around the streams are the only option for wild and domestic animals to find shadow and water during those dry months.

So, monkeys are an important part of this system and we need to protect them to protect the forest and water that help us to maintain life in this and other areas in the world.

Although I usually don’t mention this to the people in the area, they are also important because more than 75 % of the monkeys’ species around the world are disappearing for different causes such as deforestation, fragmentation, hunting, bushmeat, and illegal pet market. Another reason to study and protect them around the world!

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Monkey Forest Tales: What happens with an adult male of red howler monkey after he is expulsed from his group?

Unamas - SR Enero 2012 390

In July of 2005, a student observed the change in dominance of two males in a group of red howler monkeys.

Red howler monkeys usually live in groups with one or two adult males and several females and their juveniles and infants. In general, the dominant male or alpha, is the one who reproduces, therefore the tension between males can produce fights and changes in male’s dominance over time.

Male’s dominance can be produced because an external male, usually a solitary male, or another male in the group challenge the alpha male. Some of these fights finish in body contact where the male who lose can be seriously injured. This was the case of the male in this story, we called him D.

Very little is known about those males that lose a dominance fight and are expulsed from their groups, injured. D lived in a small fragment where census survey was taken frequently, and he was usually seen during these surveys.

D was observed for four months after he was expulsed from his group, mainly in some areas of that group territory, but never in close proximity to the group. During the first days his left leg was injured, and he moves slowly and with difficulty. He has a cut in his face and leg. But he was still able to feed himself and move, which was good for his survival. After six months we couldn’t find him again and although his injuries were better, we couldn’t be sure if he survived, disperse to another fragment or died.

Other solitary males had been seen in the same fragment and other fragments we survey in the study area over the years (29 observations of solitary males in 15 years), mainly in good health and without scars, except by two adult males: one observed by a local worker, who found him crossing a pasture with a deep wound full of worms. And another adult male observed in a medium size fragment (114 ha) with slow movements and who looks sick or old at that moment.



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Monkey Forest Tales: The challenges of being woman in a man dominated area

The study area is in a rural area dominated by man. Although I had known incredibly strong women in this area the reality for most of them is that they are still subjugated to men, meaning they are only value by how good they are to have children, maintain a clean house and a happy husband. Not very different from other rural areas in Colombia and in the world.

Supervising undergrad student has been one of the more challenging experiences, not only because teaching what I know in the field is not always easy, but also because the area in which I work is one with challenging situations, especially for young women that leave their house for the first time.

When a woman from the city arrives to this area, they are usually seen as an intruder for the local women, they came to steal their man. For men, they are some kind of trophy, a new prey to hunt. To them, there is no reason for a woman to study monkeys, and even less, a reason to spend long hours in the forest following monkeys. That is just illogic to them.

This make all those women who came to study monkeys in this area very special ones, strong women who faced a lot of their own fears to finish their careers. Even if they don’t know, all of them had teach me a lot about strength, love and passion and I’m very proud of had learned from them, and I hope I had taught them a little bit about monkeys in return.

I want to thank them for their friendship over the years and the lessons that they teach me. This project has not been sustainable if it wasn’t for them and all the observations they did.

Most of my undergrad students has been woman, but I don’t want to disregard the contributions that male students have done to this project and the challenges that they faced by coming to this area. In an area dominated by man, male competition is high and that also affected male students coming from the city who had different ways of see and experience life.

Another challenge of being a woman in this area is that you sometimes had to face some dangerous situations just because you are woman and you spent long hours alone in the forest.

In few occasions I had to face encounters with illegal hunters. Although nothing happened is a situation that sometimes can go wrong.

In Colombia hunting is allowed legally only for subsistence and only to indigenous and afro-descendants communities in traditional land. Therefore, as I work in private land and there isn’t any indigenous communities in the area, all hunting is considered as illegal in this area.

Additionally, meeting a man with a gun (or without it) in the forest more than an hour from the farm house can be scary and it requires a lot of internal strength to just continue working in the field. Some of these encounters had led to sexual harassment from these guys towards me.

So, How I handle this? I had a bad temper and is easy to know that I’m angry, so that helps a bit, because I didn’t show any fear towards them. And help me make some limits clear to the man in the area. But I also had carried for years a machete (long knife) in my waist, a very visible weapon that shows them I’m not afraid to defend myself. Finally, I just try to avoid any kind of encounters.

I always alert when I’m in the forest, not only because I’m searching for monkeys but because If I hear human voices, I just avoid them, specially if I felt uneasy. I follow my instincts.

I shouldn’t need to do all this, and it should be safe to be in the field alone or with people, but unfortunately not always is like that. So, we still need to change the way our culture see woman and teach man that we are not things that can be taken whenever they want.


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Monkey Forest Tales: How many babies a squirrel monkey female has in her life? Chela’s story

As I mention at the beginning of these series of post, I’m going to share some of the observations and research questions that we are still trying to answer. Here is the first one.

Saimiri cassiquiarensis albigena (Colombian Llanos)

In August 2005, I first saw Chela, an adult female of Colombian squirrel monkey. Her gracile look and marked lines below her eyes, told me that she has more than six years (For a detailed description of how to determine age in wild squirrel monkeys see Mitchell 1990 dissertation).

A juvenile of one year and a baby from that year were moving all the time close to her, and spending all their resting time with her, eating close by and even taking some food from her hands. All these make me think that they were her babies from last and that year.

Squirrel monkeys gave birth to one baby every year. Every year between the end of December to the end of February, Colombian squirrel monkeys have babies. In the last 15 years since I had been observing her group, Chela had at least 13 babies.

Recognizing juveniles features in squirrel monkeys are difficult, even more to differentiate individuals, and they change rapidly from one year to the next. So, only few times I was able to follow Chelas’ babies to the juveniles age. Only in 8 cases I was certain that her babies made it to their first year.

But, how long a female like Chela can give birth? That is a question that is not always easy to answer for wild animals. It usually requires that you follow individual for long periods of time, almost their whole life and in the wild this can be a challenge.

For the last 15 years, Chela had given birth to one baby every year, until the end of January 2017, that year I discover that for the first time since I started to observe Chela, she didn’t have any babies on her back.

What happens with Chelas’ baby in 2017?

This observation leads me to think of three possibilities:

1) that it’s possible that females of squirrel monkeys after certain age will not produce any more babies, a menopausal phase as the one observed in killer whales, humans and other primates.

2) That Chelas’ baby in 2017 born death, or

3) Chelas’ baby was killed during the first weeks.

Although I’m not sure what of these options is the right answer. There is an open window to explore the first option in a wild group of Squirrel monkey that has been observed for the last 15 years with a frequency enough to discern possible patterns, especially from a female of which we can guess that already reach at least 21 years old and still looks very agile and healthy.

In 2018, it was not possible for me to visit the area during the birth season, therefore no data on Chela’s reproduction is available from that year. However, in the birth season of 2019, Chela was found again without a baby and in close proximity of a young female that not only had a baby from this year but also had a baby from last year. At some moments this young female was observed carrying both babies. Probably Chela’s daughter with her first two babies.

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