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.
  • 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 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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Monkey Forest Tales: Why is important a good, detailed database when studying monkey behavior?

As a mention in my last post, while working with my own and other databases I had the opportunity to reflect a lot about data, but also about how we store that data. So, in today’s post, we are going to talk about databases and why is important to make good and detailed databases. This can be applied to working with other groups and in different topics, but we will focus on monkeys because it is what this blog is about.

As mentioned before, when I started, I was trained as a naturalist, which means that I was trained to collect a lot of detailed data in notebooks. However, after coming back from fieldwork, all that data needs to be stored in a more practical way and with the introduction of computers, in a way that allow us to make multiple and different types of analysis. Remember I’m from the generation that started to use computers when I was in the university, not primary school, plus during my first ever fieldwork with red howler monkeys back in 1995, computers were not widely available as they are today. So, I must learn to use databases or excel spreadsheet when it was at its beginnings, and it took me a lot of time to understand all the tools that it has.

It was also not always easy to learn how much detail was good enough to make analysis and how to put all detailed data in a way that will allow me to filter by specific features and extract only what I was going to use for the analysis. Over the years I had tried to teach my own students about how important is that they do a good database, so they can extract data easily if new questions arise when they are analyzing their data or if they see patterns that can be good to explore in their data. Unfortunately, this has not been so easily to achieve, and they just introduce the data they use for analysis.

A good and detailed data is particularly important when you survey an area for several years and look at different data over those years, it will make easy to extract the data useful for questions using data from multiple years and multiple sites. Especially, if you are interested in temporal or spatial data associated to behavioral or ecological data of multiple species. Databases can make you analysis more practical and you can store data in compact way and in multiple sites without having to go back to your field notebooks very often. It can also help you associate information from other resources collected while doing behavioral and ecological studies. So, the best advise I can give if you are starting your career is to take time and make a good and detailed database that you can feed over years and allows you to explore more complex questions over time…

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Monkeys Forest Tales: Why to collect good quality data?

In past weeks while working with my field data, as well as with other people data, reflections about how we collect field data for our research? How we teach our students to collect that data? And now, how we train our local collaborators to collect that data to help us with our research? Make me think about collecting good quality data. By good quality data, I mean data that can be used to understand biological processes but also help us to propose effective conservation actions for the species we work with.

When I started, over 25 years ago, collecting good quality data means detailed information about every observation I made about the monkeys for as long as possible. Then, while I was doing my doctorate, good quality data also means to collect data from as much places as possible, within a timeframe limited by financial resources. So, you basically must optimize the time you spend in the field collecting data. However, even when you collect just a few data for answering specific questions, the same detail should be observed as all that detail can explain the data patterns we observe from our data.

By this I mean, even if your timeframe is limited just be detailed on the data you collect and take advantage of all the technology available (if the environment allow you to have it) and collect additional details that help you contextualize the specific data you collect such a GPS point, a good picture or even better a video, talk with the local people and gather some historic information from the data…

Good data means, enough information so you can answer the questions you made before you went to collect that information. Even if the data was difficult to gather. It will be always difficult to gather, especially if you work in an uncertain environment, like field.

When you have spatial data, collecting good quality data also mean to know the equipment accuracy and what to collect as additional data that put your GPS points in context when you work with it. The reason for making emphasis on this good quality data is because that will help you understand better the kind of results your analysis give you and how that can be explained to make better decision for the animals you study and the people around them.

So, before going to the field or when training students and local assistant just remember to think about those additional details that can improve your data collection so you get better and useful results.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Some stories of local people: Stella’s story

Stella and other kids from the study area painting monkeys. Picture: Graciela Pinzón

When working in the field, you meet many people from different ages and backgrounds. Your share time, stories, and experiences with them, and both are affected by those experiences and stories even many years after that happens. In today’s post, I will share the story from Stella Gutierrez, a local girl who´s mom lived in one of the farms where Zocay Project started in 2004. Here is what Stella said about how going to the forest to see monkeys with me change her:

“Hi, I’m Stella Gutierrez, I want to tell you a little about the experiences that I had with nature since I met Xyomara.

I met her around 18 years, my mom was living in a farm located in San Martin, Xyomara arrived there to do fieldwork, since then she started to take me with her for her visit to the forest to collect samples, see and mark areas where the monkeys live, know about the quantity of their population, and know their behavior, among other things.

We went to see not only the “maiceros” (black-capped capuchins), we also followed the behavior of “aulladores” (red howler monkeys), “titis” (Colombian squirrel monkeys), “nocturnos” (night monkeys) and “zocays” (dusky titi monkeys). While I was with her, she teaches me about the importance for human life of all animals and in this case monkeys. Because they help us to disperse seeds in the forest. She also teaches me that farms always need to have living fences so the monkeys can move and survive. That we need to protect monkeys instead of attack them, as we are the ones that invade its territories.

She also made meetings to raise awareness about the preservation of the environment and especially monkeys, those meetings were for adults, teaching them their importance and the role they play in nature, how they as parents and workers in farms can help to preserve them, no taking them as pets, not harming them or hunting them, but creating spaces where they can survive.

Those meetings were also for kids, where she brough teaching material, practical and easy to understand, so all kids from farms around also get interested in all the beauty of environmental preservation and especially monkeys that were attack in the area.

I remember Xyomara taking me to those walks teaching me how to observe their behavior without disturbing them, so after a while the monkeys get used to our presence and eat calmly and felt good with us keeping them company. She toughs me to eat like them, she used to say, “if they eat it, it can be food for us too”, in several occasions we eat fruits that they eat, even I eat some ants living in branches that are source of nutrients for the monkeys.

So, there are many stories about those walks, but the most important is that thanks to all Xyomara’s teaching, when I was a kid, now that I’m a grown woman worried by the environment, I share her teachings with my family, especially my two kids. This teaching had made them more careful about the environment we have, so they want to protect it and enjoy it without destroy it.”

Texto original de Stella en español (original text from Stella in Spanish): “

Hola, soy luz Stella Gutiérrez, quiero contarles un poco de las experiencias que he tenido con la naturaleza desde que conozco a Xiomara Carretero.

La conocí hace aproximadamente hace 18 años, mi madre se encontraba viviendo en una finca ubicada en San Martín de los llanos Meta, allí Xiomara llego a realizar trabajos de campo; desde entonces ella me empezó a llevar a sus camitas diarias para recolectar muestras, ver y demarcar las zonas por donde habitaban los micos, conocer acerca de la cantidad de su población Y conocer su comportamiento entre otras cosas.

Salíamos a ver no solo los micos maiceros, además seguíamos el comportamiento de los micos aulladores, titis, nocturnos etc. Mientras la acompañaba ella me enseñaba la importancia que tienen para la vida humana todas las especies de animales en este caso los monos, ya que nos ayudan a polinizar esparciendo semillas para el aumento de árboles etc. Me enseño que las fincas deben tener siempre cercas vivas para el traslado y la supervivencia de los micos, que debemos protegerlos no atacarlos, ya que nosotros somos los que invadimos su territorio.

También realizaba reuniones de concientización para la preservación del medio ambiente y en especial la de los micos, esas reuniones las dirigía no solo para adultos, enseñándoles su importancia y el papel que juegan en la naturaleza, como ellos al ser padres de familia y encargados de fincas podían ayudar a preservarlos, no adoptándolos como mascotas, no lastimándolos ni cazándolos, sino creando espacios apropiados para su supervivencia.  También para niños ofrecía espacios en los cuales llevaba material de enseñanza muy práctico y fácil de entender, para que los menores de todas las fincas aledañas también se interesaran por todo lo hermoso que tiene la preservación del medio ambiente y en especial  los micos que eran tan atacados en estas zonas.

Recuerdo que Xiomara al llevarme a esas caminatas me enseñaba como observar su comportamiento sin incomodarlos, tanto que después de un tiempo los micos se acostumbraban a nuestra presencia y comían tranquilos y se sentían a gusto mientras nosotras los acompañábamos; me enseño a alimentarme como ellos, ella me decía “ si lo comen ellos a nosotros también nos sirve como alimento” en varias ocasiones nos alimentábamos de los frutos que ellos también comían, hasta llegue a comer ciertas especies de ramas y hormigas que sirven como fuente de nutrientes para los micos.

En fin hay muchas cosas por contar de esas caminatas, pero lo más importante es que gracias a todo lo que Xiomara me enseño de niña, ahora soy una mujer preocupada por el medio ambiente y le transmito a mi familia, especialmente a mis 2 hijos esas enseñanzas, las cuales han servido para que ellos no destruyan el medio ambiente que tenemos sino que lo protejan y lo disfruten sin destruirlo.”     

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Monkey Forest Tales: Writing a letter of interest for your job application

In past weeks, I wrote a couple of post about volunteer experiences and transferable skills, both important when you prepare your CV and apply for jobs. In today’s post I will talk about my experiences with letters of interest when applying for new jobs.

When I started applying for jobs, a long time ago, it was only about your CV done, showing what you have done, your studies and the experience you have. Every country presents this same information in different ways and receive different kinds of support documentation with your C.V. Also, academic jobs are different from industry, NGO jobs applications. Nowadays, both will require a letter of intention in which you will explain why your experience is the right one for the job you are applying.

Over the years, some friends and professors gave me different advises about how to write this kind of letter, what to put in, but just recently I also learned that you also must learn what kind of language you should use. Some of the instructions on those job applications explain that you need to put how your experience will be useful for that job. However, it seems is also important to put how those experiences and skills will solve the problems you will face while doing the job you are applying for, using the same words they use to advertise the job.

Some career advisors also will tell you; you need to sell yourself for the job you are applying for. I never being good at selling, even less to sell myself. But in today’s job market the better you market yourself the better the job you get, so try to learn the language appropriate in your field to do it.

In academy, is not only about selling, but also about the articles you publish and the journals in which you publish it. So, if you can start publishing early, choose wise about the journals and even if we do not like and depending on where you want to go to work, publish in English.

Recently, there has been a lot of debate about, how academy is driven by publishing in English and how difficult it is for us non-native speakers to publish in this language. Although I think is valuable to publish both in English and in your own native language, you need to be aware that you will get different opportunities from publishing in different languages. I also agree that academy system need to change about this aspect, however I do not think it will change fast enough to give people finishing their careers now the opportunities they deserve if they only publish in their native language. So, my better advise is trying to publish in both languages, English and your native language.

Make sure also that you show that flexibility to publish in more than one language in your letters of interest, especially if the job you are applying require that you manage more than one language, a feature that I found is getting more common in recent years. And a final advise, spent time doing your job applications, this will assure you, you will get at least to the job interview phase of the process…

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