Monkey Forest Tales: Thinking about fires and some recent news

During past weeks there were some devastating news about fires in northern Argentina that reached a field station, Estación Biológica Corrientes in San Cayetano Provincial Park, Corrientes, Argentina (more information here). At this field station a population of black and gold howler monkeys that has been studied over 30 years was partially decimated by fires.

The reason why I bring this story to this blog is because those fires were started as part of a periodic practice that it is also done in the study area, during the dry season (December to March). When I hear the news, not only I felt a deep sadness for the people and the monkeys but it also reminds me of the next dry season approaching to my study area and the fragility of some of the forest fragments in which we work.

Fires has been used in the study area to regrowth pastures and it has been a long time traditional practice in the natural savannas in the Orinoquian region, however sometimes those fires get out of control and enter to the forest burning complete forest fragments and all that live inside them. Local people practice of burning garbage close to forest edge also increase the risk of wildfires destroying forest fragments in the area during the dry season.

Some of the traditional practices in the region that have been used for long time and seems to have worked, except on very dry months, it’s a deep ditch in the border of forest edges or areas were they want the fires to stop. Mostly this has been effective, the problem is when there is wind and it is very dry, the fire jump and sometimes catches dry fallen leaves that starts a fire inside of the forest.

These practices combined with the continues reduction of forest fragments that make the seasonal streams get dryer every year are becoming a real threat to the forest and all the animals who live in there, in the whole region. More regeneration and planting native trees can improve both, controlling the fires and keeping the water flow in those seasonal streams. As well as prepare and improve fire practices that need to be restricted in very dry months.

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Monkey Forest Tales: How monkeys communicate?

During my last visit to the field, I had the opportunity of taking some city kids to the forest to learn about monkeys (kids from the landowners). During this visit we talk about the monkeys, their forest and how they live. During our talks, I asked some of the kids what other questions they have about the monkeys, what they would like to know about them. One of the questions that one of the kids asked is how monkeys communicate. So, in today’s post we are going to explore the different ways monkeys have to communicate between them.

As many other animals, monkeys use their senses to communicate, sometimes combining smell, sound, contact and visual clues. Some species use one or several at the same time. For example, the nocturnal monkeys use more scents and sound to communicate more than visual clues because they move in a dark environment at night.

Colombian squirrel monkeys, red howler monkeys, dusky titi monkeys and black-capped capuchins use a combination of sounds, visual displays, and scents to communicate between them and between groups.

Red howler and dusky titi monkeys emit loud sounds in the early mornings to tell other groups where they are. Those same sounds are also produced to tell solitary males or other groups that they are too close, and they need to move to another area because they are in their territory.

Black-capped capuchins emit different sounds to tell the other member of their groups that they see a possible danger. They even have different sounds for bird predators (e.g., eagles) or terrestrial predators (e.g. snakes, jaguar and other wild cats) and these sounds are also recognized by individuals of Colombian squirrel monkeys, because they sometimes form mixed groups of the two species.

Males of red howler, dusky titi, Colombian squirrel monkeys sometimes rub their neck on some branches to mark them. Scent are used also to detect when the females are ready to copulate.

All monkeys in the study area use grooming not only to clean their fur from ticks and other parasites. But also, to reinforce the relationships between members in the group. Dusky titi monkeys additionally twine their tails to reinforce their bond as a family, couple during resting. 

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Monkey Forest Tales: Notes from the field

I’m writing today’s post from the field. After almost 8 months without being in the field is just an incredible feeling to be here and being able to breath this air. Although I don’t live so far and still get some glimpses of rural life despite being in a city. The joy I felt the moment I get back to the farm where this project started is something I can hardly describe.
And it is even more incredible the feeling of looking at monkey’s groups that I learn to know for the last 16 years. Going back to the field after all these months of inactivity was challenging physical and in some ways emotionally.
We get some good and not so good news this time. Let’s start with the goods…. New babies were observed in red howler monkey’s groups, in two groups, and three groups of black-capped capuchins, all born during the pandemics. A big group of coatis was also observed with babies also born during the pandemics. Chela, my favorite Colombian squirrel monkey female is still around with a juvenile going behind her, probably a baby from a few years back. Babies born in February from Colombian squirrel monkeys and dusky titi monkeys are growing well and healthy. And lastly but not least people are doing good and healthy in the farms despite the pandemics.
Now let’s talk about the not so good news…one of the red howler groups had a high infestation of botflies, especially the older juveniles, but also the adults. Although it is possible to see this kind of parasites in red howlers, in all the years I had been looking at red howler monkeys in fragmented and continuous forest, I had not seen so many group members with botflies.
The highest infestations of botflies that I had seen were in forest fragments in near proximity to cattle ranching and palm oil plantations. Although both situations are present in the forest fragment in which the group is found, the cows doesn’t have botflies at the moment and the palm oil plantation is not that close to the fragment. It is separated by two big pasture plots. Another possible explanation can be related to a decrease in their immune system response due to poor habitat quality.
Despite being October the second month with highest fruit productivity in that forest fragment, this year the forest fruit production seems to be delayed, fruits are just starting to be available. Another possible factor that can be playing a role is the fact that, it is a big group (ten individuals), which can increase competence and affect more older juveniles than the youngers and other members of the group in terms of access to food resources. However a more detailed observations are needed to understand this particular pattern. Hopefully the group will survive without any loss…at least I had never seen a red howler monkey die from botflies and let’s hope this won’t be the case…
For now we are able to start again our monitoring of monkeys in the study area and we keep a close eye on the red howler monkey’s group with botfly infestation. Hopefully next month we will be able to go again to make surveys and some of our students will be back in the field looking at these incredible resilient animals that always put a smile in my face…
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Monkeys Forest Tales: Talking about some scientific terms: Hotspots

In today’s post, we are going to talk about another scientific term that people outside science and the media use often. This term is hotspots. It is referred to an area where there is a concentration of something, animals, plants, diseases, culture, etc. As this is a blog related with the natural world, we are going to talk only about biodiversity hotspots.
In the world, there are several biodiversity hotspots such Indonesia in Asia, the Congo basin in Africa, the Atlantic forest in Brazil among others. Areas or countries considered hotspots are also areas with high concentration of endemism (see more about endemism here)
In Colombia, we had several hotspots in terms of areas with high diversity of species such Choco and the Amazonian piedmont in Putumayo, where there is a high diversity of plants and animals. These areas are of high importance for the country and highly threatened by human activities.
In Meta, the department where this project is focus, the area around Serrania de la Macarena is a hotspot of plants and animals, because in this area the fauna and flora of three regions meet. This area had plants and animals from the Andean, Orinoquian and Amazonian regions, making it an important place for the biodiversity of Colombia.
The diversity of altitudes, topography and weather of Colombia also influence the high concentration of biodiversity present in the country and that is the reason of why Colombia is also considered a hotspot in terms of biodiversity.
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Monkey Forest Tales: Talking about some scientific terms: Endemism

In past days while talking with people outside of the scientific circle, I found myself explaining some terms that are used in media and even in some policy documents not always consulted with a person with a scientific background. So, in today’s post and next post you will find some explanations and examples of the terms: endemism and hotspots that you probably had hear.
Let’s start with endemism that is a biological term used to describe a living things (bacteria, fungi, virus, plants, and animals) which are only found in a restricted area, usually limited by certain conditions which can include limits of temperature, altitude and relative humidity. But what that mean? It means that those specific organisms are not found in any other place. This can be a mountain, a specific type of forest in a remote area, an specific ecosystem or country or even a continent.
An example from the study area is the dusky titi monkey, they only live in a small area of Colombia. You can only find them in an area of around 60.000 km2, an area bigger than Switzerland.
One of the reasons this terms is important and most of the species that are endemics are in risk of extinction is that its reduced distribution area make them more sensible to disappear once the habitat in which they are found is destroyed.
Colombia is a country with a high number of endemic species, 14 % of the known species in Colombia are endemic. Most of them threatened by deforestation due to human activities such as road construction, agriculture, cattle ranching, petrol exploitation, and mining.
Not all endemic species in Colombia are found in protected areas and some are currently found in fragmented landscapes. In the case of the dusky titi monkeys, they are only found in two National Parks, Tinigua and La Macarena, both with high deforestation.
Outside of the National Parks dusky titi monkeys are found in forest fragments surrounded by pastures, palm oil plantations, crops, and urbanizations. Therefore, in order to conserve this species, we need to learn how to manage the landscapes in which they survive outside of National Parks and conserve the populations inside the National Parks.
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