Monkey Forest Tales: A female red howler story, Pamela

Unamas Agosto 2011 152 (2)

Today’s post we are going to talk about females in red howler monkeys and their relationships. As I mentioned in several past posts, I started following monkeys in a continuous forest at the Tinigua National Park. This story is based on a female from the group that I was studying there. Her name was Pamela, she was an old female and the mother of all the subadult and adult females and males in her group. By the time I met Pamela, she had an infant, a subadult and an adult daughter’s, and a juvenile son. Her adult daughter, Any, had a subadult male and an infant son. Pamela and Any were close but they have different personalities and display different behaviors when taking care of their babies.

Pamela let her infant daughter, from three months old free to move around all the time, while Any was always looking and worried about his son, Al, who has only two months. Even when the infants were older these differences were evident, and Any seems to be a more protective mother than Pamela. I always thought it was because Pamela was older and had more experience than her daughter, who only had one more son and had some infant death. Pamela, on the contrary, had two living daughters and a son, although she also had lost some infants in the past.

Pamela not only was the older female; she was also the one who knows best the groups’ territory. She knew where the fruit trees were, and she was leading her group movements most of the time, especially towards big fig trees. Sometimes she seems to know which was where the ones who were having fruits before others in her group When you follow a group of monkeys, you know that the group had accepted you when the females let you see their babies and don’t make any efforts to get rid of you when moving. Pamela was the first one in her group to accept me. I was able to saw her small daughter, Pati all the time and sometimes it seems that she slow down a bit just to make sure I was following them. Probably it was just my imagination, but I still like to think that it was just her waiting for me.

Pamela was also the dominant female. In red howler monkeys’ males and females have a linear dominance that is reinforced by family relationships in the case of females. When her group started to be followed, in 1986 by a Japanese scientist, she wasn’t the only female in the group, she had a sister, but still, she was the dominant female or at least the one who leads some of the movement and sit closer to the alpha male. Pamela disappears and it was assumed dead in 1996, leaving her small daughter of over a year old, Pati. Pati was taken care of by her sister, Pili, a subadult female according to observations of students and researchers.

In the study area, groups of red howler monkey had been followed only for short periods of time (around 6 months and not several continuous years) and clear relationships of dominance had been only partially established. However, during census survey most adult females had been observed feeding in close proximity to each other, which can suggest that they can be related. Usually, only 1 – 3 adult females had been observed in every group. Additionally, and only on rare occasions, solitary females had been observed in the study area (5 times over the past 15 years). This is usual in red howler monkey where we know there is a dispersion of both sexes but more common in males than females.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Importance of biodiversity studies in highly fragmented landscapes

Figura 1 Xyomara Carretero-Pinzón. Decision Point

Today’s post we are going back to not so personal story, although it still shows some of my personal views in terms of what I think is important to focus. We are going to talk about the importance of biodiversity studies in highly fragmented landscapes. Highly fragmented landscapes are large portions of land (several hundreds of hectares) characterized by a diverse matrix with human activities in which natural habitat remnants persist. These systems usually have multiple human activities around and inside of the natural habitat remnants, which vary depending on the specific region and/or country. However, there are some similar patterns.

In rural areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America landscapes in which natural habitat and human activities interact are extensive. The increase of the human population since the industrial revolution had increased the pressure on natural resources, increasing the interactions between humans and wildlife. Therefore, an increase in the conflict between our activities and the persistence of natural habitats continues growing. That is a fact and something that we as scientists need to accept. Part of our work now is to focus on methods and tools that help us understand how we can improve the lives and habitat of the species that live on those habitat remnants.

Although a large extension of natural habitat is important to conserve and protect, there are a lot of species (plants and animals) that only live in areas with human activities. Those are the only habitat that is left to them. Some of those species are not present in National Park or large tracks of natural habitat with less human pressure. Therefore, we need to understand how those species persist in close proximity to human activities and how we can maintain those populations.

The persistence of those species in highly fragmented landscapes depends on how well we manage the natural remnant in which they live as well as how we mitigate the human activities surrounding them. Every action we humans make in the environment had an impact on those habitat remnants at different scales, from the impact on the site where the activity is done to several kilometers around that area. It depends on how conscious we are about all the activities we make. For example, a watermelon crop established close to forest fragments surrounding a small stream. Every agricultural decision we made about that watermelon crop such as the type of water we are using, how often we fumigate the crop and with which products, where we dispose the residuals from those fumigations, all affect not only the crop but also the forest fragment and the water in it. We also affect the soil in which it grows and all the fauna in it and depending on that soil.

Watermelon crops are one of the many human activities in the study area, over the years I had observed the many practices that they use in their crops. Although it is not always easy to talk with people working on those crops, from time to time I found someone who listens. One of the main concerns for me is the use of pesticides and the management of their empty packages. Many times, when I was doing census or following monkeys, I had found empty packages from pesticides near to the stream or in the forest. There is no management of this waste and no education about how dangerous it is for the environment and humans. And we don’t know what the effects of pesticide residuals on primates’ health are.

Other activities present other types of impacts and challenges that we need to address to find ways in which the fauna inhabiting habitat remnants immersed in highly fragmented landscapes can survive and thrive. Although some human activities are more impactful than others, they all have an impact and they all affect the native animals and plants. It is our responsibility to find ways to mitigate that impact and as a society to ask those impacts to be mitigated by the people/ companies to make the impact.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Why I study monkeys?


Today’s post is a bit personal and I apologize if you were looking for a monkey story, but some days ago, a volunteer from this project and then a local in the study area, both ask me why I study monkeys? Who pays me for doing it? When I mentioned that no one pays me to study monkeys, they ask why I still do it? The reason is simple because it makes me happy. Some of the happiest and more rewarded moments in my life had been surrounded by monkeys. Some of my closest friends had heard me said that monkeys are my angels, and they really are. They are the reason why I wake up every day. Every time I enter a forest and I meet a monkey’s group my heart lift and I’m mesmerized by them. It was a passion that started slowly more than 22 years ago and that keeps growing every time that I enter any forest.

Although working with monkeys in the field had many challenges and discomfort (mosquitos, ticks of multiple sizes, rain, hot, sweat, and many other things) I still enjoy the silent moments in which we are together, and they share a bit of their daily life with me. There is always long walks in the heat, there is always lots of mosquitos and ticks leaving marks in my skin, but the monkeys always show me new things.

My mind always has been an inquisitive one, full of curiosity and questions and the forest, and especially the monkeys always leave me with more questions than answers. And that is why I still continue going to the same forest and looking at the same monkeys year after year. I’m probably not the more successful researcher, I don’t publish much and not many people know me or my work but by going year after year to the same area and looking at the same groups of monkeys, not always the same people, I get a bit more understanding of what is happening with the monkeys in a system where they have to interact with humans and their domestic animals in a daily basis and it always surprises me how adaptable and resilient they are, despite our effort to destroy their home.

Over the years my research questions had varied a lot, it started with basic questions such as what X or Y species of monkeys do or eat? How they relate between them and with other species? To how they move in fragmented landscapes and what they do to survive in close proximity to human activities? Some of these questions have answers, some others are still in the process to find answers and that is why I still study them in the study area and why I still continue going to visit the same monkey groups, even if no one pays me for doing it. Or if collecting those data doesn’t seem to be part of a specific research project.

If the landowners still allow me to visit the same farms, I will continue visiting the same groups, that is an opportunity that it’s sometimes difficult to get with animals of long-life span like monkeys, where some changes only happen or are evident after several decades. So, I will continue studying monkeys because I love them and it makes me happy, even if I don’t earn an income from doing that, for as long as I have a place to go and see them…

So, my personal advice for you is that if you find something that makes you happy, do it, no matter if you don’t earn an income from that.

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Monkey Forest Tales: More about baby monkeys’ behavior


Dusky titi monkey father carrying his baby in his neck.

Today’s post is again about the baby monkey’s behavior. Looking a baby to growth is one of the best experiences in life and for me is the same if you look a baby monkey or a human baby, I enjoy both, even if I don’t have babies.

I think one of the reasons why I fell in love with monkeys was because I was looking at a baby’s behavior. I remember looking at them and making comparisons between what I was seeing and what I had witnessed from babies in my own family. And it’s not only about playing, but it’s also about how they start they live.

Most babies of the primate species in the study area started in a similar way, with small differences in which part of the mother’s body they are carried during the first days. Red howlers monkey moms carry their babies in the ventral part of their body near to their tail. After a few weeks and during the following months, babies move to the back near to their tail. One of the most amazing things about monkey babies is their strength to grasp their mothers, despite their small bodies, their hands are really strong.

On the other hand, moms of black-capped capuchins, Colombian squirrel monkeys and fathers of dusky titi monkeys and Brumback night monkeys carry their babies on their necks during the first weeks of their lives. After their first month, babies of these species are carried on mother’s or father’s back.

They start exploring the world and other members of their groups and families from the back of their mothers similar to what humans’ babies do from their mother’s arms, observing everything and trying to touch and reach everything.

They learn by imitating the behaviors of their mothers and other members of their groups. They learn to choose what to eat from their mother’s mouths, I had seen from al species in the study area how babies takes leave, flowers, fruits and even insects from their mother’s mouth and try it, and sometimes, when they are older (around 3 – 5 months) from other members of their groups.

Although most of them don’t get as messy as small kids end after trying some foods, the behavior is similar in the curiosity that monkey’s and human’s babies show about different foods, they smell it, bite it, and spit it out. A couple of times I had the opportunity to help with the caring of small monkeys, in a rehabilitation center in the Amazon and during a short period of time in the jungle when we found a baby after an infanticide event. In both cases, one of the things that surprise me the most was not only their instinct to grab you as hard as they can, as their lives depend on that, but also how they imitate you when trying new foods.

With this post and the last one I hope now you understand a bit more, why we say humans are also primates, we not only have a similar anatomy and physiology (in general terms), but also share the way in which we learn some of our social skills and how much we depend on our mothers to learn about the world in which we are growing.

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Monkey Forest Tales: About baby monkey’s behaviors

Today’s post is about babies and some baby’s behaviors. Twenty-two years ago, when I started to study monkeys in a primary continuous forest of Tinigua National Park, I worked with baby’s behavior of red howler monkeys. My focus was on bridging behavior, a behavior involving baby monkeys and their mothers when babies start moving independently.

At this moment in their development, they are clumsy and sometimes they need some help to pass forest canopy gaps, kind of like when human babies start walking and need you to take their hands to cross a street or climb up a stair. So, when the canopy forest has gaps, mainly their moms use their bodies or part of it to make a bridge between branches so the baby can cross by themselves or to climb on their backs to cross on their mom’s backs, depending on their age.

Although this behavior is mainly done by the baby’s mom, it also sometimes is done by baby’s sister and brothers or aunts. This behavior can be done with part of the body (an arm or tail) or with the whole body. This behavior frequency seems to be dependent on the forest structure. A nice description of this behavior is found in a paper by Youlatus (1993).

Although I only saw this behavior in the fragmented area of this project once, its possible that it is more common because the canopy forest in the area is more irregular and presents more challenges to young individual’s movements. I also have seen this behavior in woolly monkeys, and it has been reported in spider monkeys too (van Roosmalen 1985). Most of the other primate species in the study area seem not to make this behavior. For Colombian squirrel monkeys, dusky titi monkeys and black-capped capuchins, when an infant is unable to cross a canopy gap, babies cries and their mothers (father in the dusky titi monkey case) or juveniles come back for them and help them cross the gaps by carrying them. This could be an interesting topic for a study if you enjoy looking at baby monkeys.

Another important behavior that seems to increase the baby monkey’s confidence when starting to move independently is playing. A big part of babies and juveniles time is spent playing. Although it seems to reduce its frequency during seasons in which resource availability is low.

Some of the baby and juvenile’s games seem to help them to develop some of the strengths necessary for their daily activities. Games like hanging by their tails (howlers, woolly and spider monkeys) or hanging only by their hind limbs seems to give them confidence, and strength their tail and hind limbs muscles, while interacting with other members of their groups, such other infants and/or juveniles. This is specially used by howler, woolly and spider monkeys who use their tails to reach food resources otherwise inaccessible to them.

Playing is also important for babies and juveniles as it develops their skills to interact with other members of their group as well as to create bonds between individuals. Some games include sexual behaviors such as mounting. This game is usually seen in black-capped capuchins and Colombian squirrel monkeys’ games in which juveniles, sub-adults and sometimes infants too, mount one another. Mostly this game involves only male individuals and it seems to help them make coalitions that they will use later in life.

In my next post, I will talk more about the baby’s behavior and how the different species present in the study area vary in their development.

Van Roosmalen, M.G.M. 1985. Habitat preferences, diet, feeding strategy and social organization of the black spider monkey [Ateles paniscus paniscus Linnaeus 1758] in Surinam. Acta Amazonica 15, Suppl.: 7 – 238.

Youlatus, D. 1993. Passages within a discontinuous canopy: bridging in the red howler monkey (Alouatta seniculus). Folia Primatologica 61: 144-147.

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