Monkey Forest Tales: Monkeys as seed dispersers

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In past posts, we talk about the importance of monkeys in the forests as seed dispersers, environmental engineers and predators, in the following posts we are going to explore a bit more about the importance of monkeys meeting these functions in the forest in which they live. In this post, we are going to start with the importance of monkeys as seed dispersers in general and for the study area.

When monkeys eat fruits, sometimes the spit the seed under the tree they are eating, but other times they move to eat in a neighbor tree and spit the seed a little bit farther from the tree from which they take them. And other times they consumed the seeds from the fruits they were eating and expel those seeds in their feces. In all these cases if the seed is not consumed by the monkeys (i.e. they don’t destroy the seed during its consumption), they are dispersing those seeds.

Seed dispersion is one of the most important benefits an animal can give to a plant from which that animal consumes its fruits. It is important for the plants, and therefore for the forest, in two main aspects: 1) distance from the tree from which the fruit was taken, and 2) time to germinate and produce a new plant.

The farthest the seed is dispersed by the monkeys, the better disperser it is because this reduces the competition of that plant from other plants of the same species. Also, if the monkey consumes the seed and as a product of this the seed germinate faster this can also be beneficial for the plant.

There are some plant species that actually need that their seeds pass through the monkeys, or other animals, gut in order to germinate. During this process, the acids in the animal gut react with the seed coat and this process can accelerate the germination time.

In our study area, all primate species disperse in some way the seeds they consumed from fruit trees, but some monkeys are better dispersers than others. For example, black-capped capuchins are good dispersers of medium-sized seeds and disperse more plant species compared with red howler monkeys which are better dispersers of large seeds and disperse more amount of seeds of fewer species (Ramos, 2007). Also, red howler monkeys are good dispersers of fig trees as seeds found in their feces germinate faster than seeds collected from the mature fruits (Gaitan, 2009). More studies of the seed dispersion skill from the Colombian squirrel monkeys, Brumback night monkeys, and dusky titi monkeys in the area are still lacking.

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Monkey Forest Tales: What is the relation between habitat loss and our pandemic current situation?

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Having in mind what we are living around the world, a pandemic caused by a new virus, I thought I will talk a bit about this topic from a biologist/ conservationist perspective. I’m not going to talk about the virus itself, I don’t work with viruses, I leave that to the experts. But I do work in areas where habitat loss occurs and where wild animals enter in more close contact with humans and their domestic animal populations. These are the areas where some of those new viruses emerge and create this kind of chaos. So, today’s post is bout what is the relationship between habitat loss and our pandemic current situation.

Habitat loss or deforestation is the process in which a habitat such a swamp, forest, mangroves, grassland, or any natural habitat is reduced in terms of the amount of area. When habitat loss occurs, there is a chain of biological processes that started in a sequence. The initial loss of habitat produces a reduced availability of resources for wild animals that live in those habitats. As well as populations been more crowded because of the reduction in area. This means there are more animals than resources available in a reduced space. So, they have to go out of their natural habitats to the human-modified habitat to find resources for their lives.

All wild animals, as well as our domestic animals and ourselves, have microbes inside them. Those microbes are adapted to them and usually didn’t represent a big problem for them, other animals or us. But when wild animals from areas where habitat loss occurs get crowded and enter in contact with our domestic animals and us, those microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms) start moving between us.

That microbe’s movement between wild animals, domestic animals and us, is what makes those microbes potentially more dangerous to produce a pandemic episode like the one we all are facing today.

So, even if it looks a bit disconnected from all our activities, the truth is that every time we open wild and remote areas to new roads, crop fields, and human settlements, these areas become a potential focus of new emerging diseases that can potentially affect our daily lives, as this pandemic is doing now.

Although at the moment the only solution we had is to keep our distance from each other’s and quarantine ourselves to protect everyone else from this virus. Next time you have the opportunity to support any policy or movement that protects the natural habitat from being destroyed, please think a bit of what we are living now and try to stop it.

We are all connected on this only planet we all share, as this pandemic is showing us, and we all have the responsibility to try to stop this pandemic to occurs in our future if we all understand that we are all together on this.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Why monkeys are NOT good pets?

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In the last post, we talk about one of the problems caused by human’s fascination with monkeys, feeding wild monkeys. Today post we are going to talk about the other problem that fascination had caused to monkeys, the illegal pet trade.

When we talk about illegal pet trade we are talking about selling monkeys as pets. You will probably don’t see a problem with that as we also have other animals as pets. But behind the problem of one monkey keep as a pet is all the others that had been killed to catch the one you have.

Monkeys are social animals that live in groups. Usually, the animals ending as pets are the smaller ones, the babies. This means that for you to get that baby you see so cute, the people who sell it to you or the people who give it to them had to kill at least the mother, and usually other members of their group who try to defend the mother and her baby.

Additionally, because monkeys are as dependent on their mothers as we are, if the monkey is too small, it’s possible that the baby didn’t survive the transport and time since her/his mom was killed and the time when you get him/her. So, for each animal that you buy, there are several individuals that were killed so you get a cute monkey pet.

The other problem with having monkeys as pets is that they grow up, and when they do it, they became less cute, sometimes more aggressive and more complicated to handle. Some of them even have some behavioral or psychological problems caused by their isolation.

Similar to what happened, when a child grows up isolated without any other kids to play with and with limited contact with other humans. Monkeys growing up didn’t develop all the social skills they learn from their mothers and other members of their groups. This affects them and exacerbates some behaviors that in the social context they use to relate with other individuals in their groups.

So, if you think a baby monkey is cute and you have the impulse to buy one, please don’t. Don’t promote this kind of commerce. It’s better if you adopt a cat or a dog from a shelter or you can search for adoption programs in zoos where for a donation you can help maintain zoo animals and they will share their histories with you. Or if you prefer you can support people working with your favorite primate.

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Monkey Forest Tales: A small gift for those of you like me that need the forest to feel OK, but can get it right now

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Today’s post I want to share some of the strategies that I had used over more than 20 years working in the field or in cities in an isolated type of situation. I also want to share some of the images, recordings I used and still used when feeling isolated and need a boost of motivation for my life.

As I mentioned before, I had worked in many places, far from family and friends over the years, sometimes in magical places like an incredible forest. And some other times in small, isolated towns in my country and other countries. In all those places isolation came in different ways and although sometimes I had movement freedom in others I didn’t have it. And I actually being isolated with very few people or only myself to keep me company.

Although I’m used to be alone and I actually enjoy it. Feeling sad when you are alone is common and it is ok. It’s on those moments that I need the most forest and monkeys… I learned a very long time ago that being close to nature heals me physically and emotionally.

So, when I’m isolated and can’t go to the forest and see monkey I use the pictures  I’m attaching to this post to rebalance my life. That is my best strategy against isolation, sadness and lack of motivation. I hope it gives you a bit of motivation in these times. Please feel free to share it with anyone you think will enjoy them and will help them in this time of isolation, just keep the credits. We all need a few positive images and motivation to help us in these times…

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Monkey Forest Tales: Why is important NOT to feed wild monkeys?

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Today’s post is about an important topic for wild primates and humans, not only because of the impact that feeding wild monkeys had on monkey’s lives but also because this can have a high impact on people’s lives too. It is about the importance of NOT feeding wild monkeys

Monkeys had always caused fascination for humans, maybe because of our physical similarities, their curiosity, and sometimes funny behavior. This fascination makes that some humans see monkeys as something cute to pet and feed, causing two major problems for wild monkeys: illegal pet traffic and feeding of wild populations. This especially happens in areas where humans and monkeys share their space such as cities and towns and with less frequency in farms.

But, why feeding wild monkeys is bad? Well, it presents a couple of problems for monkeys and humans.

The first one and probably most important is the transmission of diseases caused by microorganisms. Our physiology and monkey’s physiology is similar. This means that our bodies respond more or less in the same way to viruses, bacteria, fungus, and other microorganisms. Therefore, our infections can pass to them and their infections can pass to us and by doing that make us both vulnerable.

When you feed a wild monkey, even if the monkey lives freely in a city, you enter in contact with microorganisms that they carry and the monkeys enter in contact with microorganisms that we carry, making both of us, monkeys and humans, prone to get a disease or infection carries by the other.

The second problem is that when they get used to being feed by humans and that feeding stops, they need to search for the food you are not giving to them. This causes problems because the monkeys start looking in a garbage bin, stealing food in markets or attacking people who are eating to get their food. Humans are usually not very tolerant of these behaviors and start killing those individuals or groups that make these behaviors.

So, if you care about monkeys and are worried that groups of monkeys living close by to your town/ city don’t get enough food for living. There are other ways in which you can help them, such as planting fruit trees near to the areas where you usually see them, especially fruit trees that are native, the kind of trees where you had seen them eating or ask a biologist what kind of fruit tree can be useful for them.

Another thing you can do is to prevent the destruction of their habitat and increase the connectivity of the forest fragments where you see the monkeys moving. All the species are continuously moving in search of food but when the habitat is disrupted and they cannot pass to other forest areas, they just search for food where they can, even if that means garbage bins.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Group formation mechanisms in monkeys

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In my last post, we talk about two new observations made during this birth season, the possible fission of a large group of Colombian squirrel monkeys and the possibly new formation of a group of dusky titi monkeys.

After a conversation with one of the landowners in the area where he asked if that was good or not for the monkeys in the area, I decided to explain a bit more about the mechanisms of group formation in monkeys and what it means for the monkeys in the study area.

Monkey’s groups form in two main different ways:

  1. Because one big group is so big that the competition between individuals inside the group is high and as a mechanism to reduce this competition, the groups splits, and two new groups are formed. Sometimes this group division is accompanied by a division of the original home range or territory too. This is what we seem to be happening in the study area with one of the Colombian squirrel monkey’s groups.

 

  1. Because of a new pair of a female and a male mate and form a new reproductive unit. This is usually the case in monogamous species such as the dusky titi monkey.

Formation of new groups of monkeys can potentially mean an increase of the monkey’s population in the area only if those new groups produce new individuals that also reproduce themselves.

So for now, in the case of the Colombian squirrel monkeys, it is possible that the population in the area is increasing not only because of the group that we had been monitoring over the past 15 years have maintained its size and grow itself but also because we had observed new groups in the vicinity. However, this needs to be monitored with caution as the changing dynamic of the area. Those new groups could also be displaced groups from other nearby forest fragments where habitat quality has been reduced and food scarcity had led to those groups to move farther.

In the case of the dusky titi monkeys, we will need to wait for the next birth season to see if this new group establish itself and have babies. The number of groups of dusky titi monkeys in the area had remained stable over the past years and only sporadically we had seen individuals dispersing outside of the focal forest fragments. More data could be necessary to say with confidence if the population is increasing in the area.

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Monkey Forest Tales: It is the babies’ season in the study area

I’m writing today’s post from one of the farmhouses while observing the sunset. The sun is hiding behind the forest near to the house while I’m reflecting on the past day’s surveys. Red and orange colors fill the sky and a soft breeze fills the air with sweet smells. This is the time of the year where some trees produce flowers in the study area.

The dry season is at its fullest, strong winds and that smell to dry leaves that fill your lungs as soon as you enter the forest. There are just a few small ponds of muddy water in the stream bed. Birds and other animals are easily found around those muddy pounds. The ground is dry and covered with litter.

The dry season marks the birth season for dusky titi monkeys and Colombian squirrel monkeys. Although most births occur during January, in the past two years we were only able to visit the area during February. Still a good timing to count babies and enjoy the changes that dry season brings to the forest fragments.

Over the past days, we made surveys in all the small fragments that we still have access to the study area in search of monkey’s groups. Black-capped capuchins and red howler monkeys also have babies but a few months older than the Colombian squirrel monkeys and dusky titi monkeys.

As always the area gives not only the opportunity to see monkeys but also other mammals and birds. Woodpeckers are around and seem to have youngsters as well as the yellow-headed caracara. Coatis, giant anteater, tamanduas, and squirrels are around too. The scarlet ibis, a symbol of the Colombian Llanos are easy to be seen during this season around the small ponds in the stream beds of the forest fragments.

As a big surprise, we were able to see early in the morning on the third day a group of around 60 squirrel monkeys, including 10 babies from this season. The group split a bit latter in two subgroups but it seems they spend the night together. It is rare because usually, this group is not bigger than 35 individuals. A bit bigger than typical groups in the area, which usually have between 15 – 20 individuals.

There were at least three older females without babies (including Chela, who we mentioned before in another post). We only have seen squirrel monkey’s groups as big as today’s group in continuous areas, where up to 100 individuals can spend the night together and sometimes even a couple of days together. Can it be possible that we are seeing a new group formation (or better, a group fission) of Colombian squirrel monkeys? Hopefully, we will be able to answer this question in the following months.

We were less lucky at observing dusky titi monkeys during this field visit, however, we could at least verify that some groups are still present, some new babies and at least one baby from last year survived up to now. It also seems there is a new group in the process to be formed and/ or establish in one of our smallest forest fragments. But a closer observation is required to confirm this.

This dry season not only brought new babies this year but also more questions to answer for this amazing and dynamic system…

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Monkey Forest Tales: Some notes about deers in the study area

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After the last post was published, we realize that we forget another important mammal in the region, deers. Although the more widespread species in the region is the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), there are at least another two species of deers present in the study region, especially in the big forest fragments. There two other species are the gray brocket deer (Mazama gouazoubira) and red brocket deer (Mazama americana).

All are herbivorous species who eat grasses, some fruits and flowers. Mainly nocturnal but the white-tailed deer is also diurnal. All are mainly solitary, except by the white-tailed deer that can be also found in small groups.

White-tailed deers are found in the study area mainly near to the forest edges and sometimes you can find their youngsters hiding quietly in the regenerating areas of abandoned pastures or in the forest edges near to watermelon crops after the harvest feeding on the leftover fruits.

We had the opportunity to see at least a couple of youngsters over the years, but we don’t have detailed data on their population in the area, except by some sightings, feces, and footprints.

Although hunted by its meat in many areas of their distribution areas, these three species seem to not be particularly heavily hunted in the study area, at least not in the forest fragments where they can be found that we have access. White-collared peccaries seem to be preferred in the area as bushmeat.

Sometimes it’s possible to find young animals in farmhouses as pets, mainly from white-tailed deers, usually keep it by local people after killing the mother, but not very often. We had seen them mostly alone or the mother and her offspring in the early hours of the morning. They seem to use living fences to hide and to rest at its shadow.

In the biggest fragments where the red and gray brocket deers can be found, mostly we have data on footprint which tells us that they used the trails used by locals to move the cattle from one pasture to another through the forest. Their main threats are deforestation and illegal hunting, at least in this area.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Some notes about river otters, squirrels, agoutis and capybaras

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Capybara’s footprint.

This is the last post in a series of posts about other mammals living in the study area. Today’s post is about river otters, squirrels, agoutis, and capybaras.

River otters, a medium-sized mammal that depends on rivers and small streams to feed and move. They are well adapted to moving in the water as their feet had a membrane between their fingers that help them swim.

We had seen them in the streams close to farmhouses. They feed on fish and small crustaceans living in fast-flowing rivers and streams. Usually seen very close or in the water. They are scarce in the region. Although we saw a couple of individuals that seem to be permanent residents of one of the streams for several years and then disappear.

They are not hunted in the area and most farmers don’t pay much attention to them. Contamination of watercourses, deforestation as well as some agro-industrial practices such as deviation of natural watercourses are some of the threats for this amazing animal.

Squirrels in the area are not very common, although, in the last five years, they have been seen in forest fragments where they were not found in the previous decade. They are small-sized mammals, very agile and good climbers. They feed on seeds and fruits. Usually, we found them alone with only a few occasions in which we saw two individuals moving together. People in the area don’t pay much attention to them.

Agoutis are medium size rodents, highly appreciated by their meat by local people. It is illegal hunting them but there are reports of meat from agoutis sold in the town at around $15000 per meat pound in 2014. They are solitary and nocturnal rodents, mainly found in the biggest forest of the study area. They eat insects, seeds and fruits.

Capybaras are the biggest rodents in South America. There are still present in some farms in the study area, but they are less common than in Casanare and Arauca department in the Colombian Llanos. They live in big groups near to swamps, lakes and riverine forest. In the study area, we have seen footprints, tracks, and feces close to some rivers and lakes. Few individuals have been reported by local people.

Highly appreciated by their meat by local people, although illegal. There have been some efforts to reduce their illegal hunting by implementing captive colonies, but information about it is limited. Under the national laws is still illegal to sell and marketing capybara’s meat there requires special permits that need to be done by the environmental authorities, although is still common in some areas of the country.

For the mammals mentioned in this post, their main threats are deforestation and illegal hunting. Illegal hunting is especially strong for agouties and capybaras.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Some notes about armadillos and sloths

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An armadillo searching for food in a forest fragment at the study area.

We continue with the series of posts talking about other mammals present in the study area. We are talking about two groups of very different, but beautiful mammals, sloths, and armadillos.

The species of sloth we had identified in the study area is the southern two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus), they are solitary, and we had seen them eating in trumpet trees (Cecropia spp.).

They are nocturnal and difficult to see. As other sloths, they go down to the ground to defecate, but most of their time is spent in the treetops. They mainly eat leaves and can camouflage very well the leaves of the trees in which they rest or feed, making it even more difficult to see them.

They are not hunted in the study area but sometimes found it as pets. Their main threat is deforestation. There are reports of local people in the study area who had seen them crossing pastures during the day. There are a few reports from local people who found dead individuals on the electricity cables as they sometimes used them to move.

Armadillos are in general, small-sized mammals, except by the giant armadillo. In the study area, we had seen nine-banded long nosed armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus). We also now from other colleagues work that in the region, especially in the biggest forest fragments in the study area it is possible to find the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), although it is rarely seen.

All species of armadillos are hunted in the area although is illegal. It has been traditionally hunted by indigenous and peasants in the region over centuries. When hunted, people usually use dogs to find them and if they hide in their burrows, people dig big holes surrounding the hole in which the dogs follow the armadillo.

They are scarce and difficult to see. They are mainly nocturnal, although the nine-banded long nosed armadillo can be seen during the day too.  We had seen them using living fences areas to feed and move between forest fragments. They mainly eat insects. Burrowing holes are common in most of the forest fragments in the area.

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