Monkey Forest Tales: Thinking about my beginnings and why I still enjoy studying primates

Over the past weeks while giving a field course, I have found myself thinking again why I still enjoy so much studying primates. In today’s post we revisit together some of those thoughts and impression that still motivates me after 27 years from my first time in a forest looking at wild monkeys.

Teaching had a particular way of make you evaluate the good’s and bad’s of research life. Not only because is challenging to explain to others the concepts and theory behind what you do in the field but also because it can show you the things you don’t enjoy at the same time it shows you what you love.

Most of my professional and academic life had been in the field with few periods of time teaching at classrooms or more commonly in the field. Teaching in the field is what I prefer, for me it give the most rewards when you see a student develop their own research project and present their results. You saw them grow as researchers but also as persons.

However, it is when I’m alone in the forest looking for monkeys or just observing their behavior when I felt the happiest and luckiest person in the world. It is at those moments that I found my motivation to continue doing research, finding time to teach and searching for options to make my research and action more valuable for monkeys’ conservation.  

I had forgotten how many times I asked myself why I still do research with monkeys and why I go too far places to see them and study them. Maybe the answer is still the same I once told my grandmother when preparing to go to the forest for my second trip to Tinigua National Park, because I love them and want to spend my life helping them to survive.

Sometimes that last part of help them to survive seems too far, however it is the example of others smarter and more successful than me that give me the energy to continue. But most importantly are all those small moments I share with wild primates what give me the motivation to continue. It is on those quiet moments where it seems that they completely accept me in their groups that I found the strength to continue with the life I choose…

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Monkey Forest Tales: Some reflections about rejection and failure

In today’s post we are going to talk about some reflections about rejection and failure. Academia is full of rejection, it is common that your paper, grant, or fellowship is rejected than accepted. This means you need to be able to process failure in a way that you convert that “failure” in an opportunity to improve and growth instead of feed feelings of worthless or increase your impostor syndrome. The best way to see any rejection is as an opportunity.
Also, rejections may make you wonder if what you are doing is the right thing to do. If it is really your life path. If you are passionate about what you do, the answer is yes, it is your life path. Life is not always easy, but if you love what you do, then be persistent, most of the best things in life take time to get them.
But, how to overcome that feeling you have after a rejection…I found that sometimes you need to take time off after your initial read to process any comments you get back. Then, read critically any comment reviewers give you about your paper, think carefully if the reviewer’s comment makes a point you overlook in your paper or if they pointed a piece of evidence, you didn’t think it was relevant before.
When it is a grant or fellowship, remember competition in science is high, but that doesn’t mean you are a bad researcher. It just means, you need to try again. Some grants give you feedback, take advantage of those comments and use those comments to improve your next application.
Rejections and failures are always opportunities for you to be better, to reflect about your decisions and to improve and look at a problem from different angles. Next application always will be better
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Monkeys Forest Tales: Working in field sites outside of your own country: challenges

In today’s post we are going to talk abut working in field sites outside of your own country, especially some of the challenges of working in a different culture and in a different language…

Fieldwork is always challenging, even when you are in your country and speaking in your own language. Why is that? May be because it usually means that you leave the comfort of your house, sometimes for camping, or to live in a place far from all the things and people you are used to.

When doing fieldwork outside of your own country those challenges increase if you go to places where another language is spoken. Some of those challenges are related with the language, but also with the culture in which you are working, additional to the challenges of the terrain in which you work, weather conditions and the specific challenges of the species or group of species that you are studying.

So, one of the things that usually helps is to be flexible and open minded to face uncertainties and to adapt yourself to the conditions surrounding you. But probably the most important skill you will need to develop is to be patience, with others but especially with yourself…Things probably never will be as you planned, there is always something that goes wrong, or slower than you expected. So be patience, have one or two back up plans, try to learn the local language and culture, be respectful of local people believes and try to have fun.

Fieldwork should be fun as well as hard work, enjoy the animals and all the opportunities that travelling and visiting other cultures offers you. Be aware of the risk you can face due to different believes, especially if you are a woman. Be safe and careful and enjoy all the opportunities that life is giving you just for being in the field, surrounded by nature and in a country that is not yours. You are lucky, that is something not all people can do or have the opportunity to do…

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Monkey Forest Tales: What means to be a good supervisor?

On past days I came across a twitter that make me thing about supervisors and how influential they are in our lives during and after we finish working with them. This twitter said: “It’s very important for grad students and postdocs to work with advisors who know when to say: that’s enough for today. Be sure to take time for yourself. Research is endless, but our lives are not. Sleep, exercise, cook a good meal, have some down time”. In all my time in academia, I only have one supervisor telling me similar words on our weekly meetings. He always asks me to socialize more and to participate not only on social activities in the lab but also to spent time with friends. To have time off. He even takes time off and sometimes didn’t went to conferences or academic events to put his family first… something that at that time I wasn’t sure I understood well, but that today I see as one of his best qualities as a human and a supervisor. So Jonathan thank you for had been my supervisor and an excellent person while I was learning…

I was formed by different supervisors from undergrad to postdoc, all of them from different countries, cultures, ages and ways to see life. From all of them I learned something (good and/or bad), and they all impacted the way I perceive and feel academia life. On the way I also interacted with other supervisors that even if they were not directly connected with my work, take time to talk about life and balance while doing research. However, it was only until I met a really bad supervisor that I start to understand what really means to have a supervisor that put you first as a person and really help you grow as a person and a researcher. Unfortunately good supervisors seems to not be that common, something that seems to be incentivized by a system that prioritize egos and publications over human quality and collaboration.

Although today I don’t supervise many students as I used to. I always try to stop myself when I push too hard students that show a real effort on keep their lives while doing a good job. I had tried to be as honest as possible about my own experiences with my students so they can learn from my experiences as well as from their own. Not so sure how successful I had been on that but there is always space for improvement…  

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Monkey Forest tales: Celebrating World Primate Day!!!

Yesterday was a special day for all of us that love primates. It was World Primate Day!! Every year we celebrate a special day dedicated to all primate (monkeys, apes, lemurs and loris) species around the world. It is a day to raise awareness about primates, their threats, threat to their habitats and the importance of primates in their habitats.

Over 75 % of primate species around the world are threatened by human activities which make their habitats (temperate forest, tropical forest, woodlands, mangroves, and savannas). Many species adapt themselves to live so close to people that they enter in conflict with human communities, riding crops and robbing food from houses. However, one thing we used to forget is that they were on those places before us, so the ones who invade their habitats are us not them and it is with a bit of respect that we should see the situations in which we enter in conflict with them.

Also, we should remember that we are primates like them. They are our closest relatives in the animal world and their beauty and smartness reflect us even when we continue forgetting that we can be as smart as they are.

They care for their babies is the same that we have for ours and they spent the same amount of energy and love to care for their babies as we do with ours. So, let’s celebrate their amazing beauty, how smart they are and do our best to protect them and their homes (habitats)… At least that’s what we try to do in Zocay Project with the species we work with every day

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News from the field: new project started

In today’s post we are going to talk about a new exciting project that we started with our collaborators from Onca Foundation. A nacional foundation which works for the conservation of Colombian biodiversity (

Over the past years due to climate change as well as changes in the local land uses in many parts around our study area, we had seen a change in the precipitation patterns. Therefore, last year we put a couple of camera traps on water sources made for livestock in one of the cattle ranches we work with so see if wildlife were using those water sources during the dry season. As you may read in the post I did about what we found, we observe several mammals, including squirrel monkeys!!! Drinking water from those sources. On this new project we want to know what the frequency of use of those water sources is and if there is difference in the use of different water sources (natural and human-made lakes, and water containers) used for livestock. This month we started this exciting new project by installing the camera traps near to those water sources. So, stay tuned for our updates in November when we will review our camera traps.

But why is this important, well during dry months in the study area most of the streams dried and there are very few places where wildlife can find water to drink. This is also true for livestock in general, so as part of the management that cattle ranches do in the area, they made artificial lakes and put water container in different part of the property. Those places are also accessible for the wildlife living in the are and they actually use them, at least during dry months. But what happens on rainy months. Is wildlife also using those water sources during rainy season?

Well, we hope to answer those questions by using camera trap methods over a year. This project is possible to the generous support of Re:wild through “The Little Chalcraft Fund”. Thank you for supporting our research and conservation is this beautiful, fragmented area of Colombian Llanos

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Monkey Forest Tales: What worked for my PhD?

In today’s post, we will talk about PhDs again, the reason for this is because I felt there is still a lot of things that I can said to help others who are doing their doctorate now or are thinking of doing it. In other post in which we mention this topic we had talk about work-life balance but are there any tips and advice you can have in mind while doing your PhD.There were several things that worked for me and others around me at that time.

When planning your PhD project for me was important to read about all the topics I was including in my thesis: landscape ecology, conservation planning and primates. But it was also important to write down the main ideas of what I was reading, kind of small abstracts as well as do conceptual maps around my research questions.

When planning my fieldwork, it was important and probably an advantage that I did it in the study area of this project and I already knew most of the logistics that was necessary for doing it. But if you don’t have that advantage, ask questions to people who had work in the area before and don’t be afraid of asking even those questions you think are silly or not important, all of them can help you at some point to deal with challenges in your fieldwork.

When writing your thesis, it is important you understand the times in which your ideas flow more fluid, when you write better: are you a morning person or do you prefer to work at night. Do you have a productive hour? Remember writing and editing is different, editing is not writing. Some of my friend used to block periods of time for just writing and others for editing and adding references. Writing time means time to put your ideas in a document without thinking on references, grammatical errors and style. Be aware of your deadlines and break down your big task in small ones, don’t be afraid of asking for help when you are stuck…

And probably the best advice someone give me was to stop when your document is around 80 – 90 % complete in your mind and send it to others for feedback. There isn’t a perfect thesis!!

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Monkey Forest Tales: Fieldwork: some additional things to have in mind

In today’s post we are going to continue talking about fieldwork. For a large part of biologist, anthropologist, and many other disciplines, fieldwork is an important part of their job and life and what to take with you on your field trips as well as how to mentally prepare for unexpended situations is an important part of that life too. So based on my own experience of over 27 years of fieldwork trips of different duration and to different ecosystems and places around the world.

For me fieldwork has been a big part of my personal and professional life, which means that I had expend a huge part of my professional life in the field, mostly working with monkeys but also volunteering in projects with other animals such as koalas and whales. Each experience had taught me different things about what to bring or not to the field. Also, it had taught me about my own skills and what my body is really able to do or not and how much I can push my own health.

As I mention in other post I have asthma, which means that there is certain thing that my body just cannot do because I can breathe properly. However, that doesn’t mean I cannot prepare myself to enjoy and do the best with my own capabilities and to choose the place where I can give the best of me to do a great job. From my early experiences during my biology studies, I noticed that cold places (mainly mountain areas in my country) I learned that cold weather was a challenge for my body and although there are interesting topics to study on those parts my body cannot function properly at high altitudes and cold weather. So, the first thing to know when you do fieldwork is to recognize your own limitations and learn to accept them.

It is also important when going to the field to know what to bring or not. This is especially important in terms of weight as you may need to carry your own bags for a few hours or several kilometers. This was a lesson that I learned a bit late in life and could have save me some back pain now, but sometimes you are stubborn on certain things. So be wise when packing, travel with clothes that are easy to wash and dry by hand. Don’t pack too many pants and t-shirts. If you are going to tropical forest with lots of mosquitos take with you a mosquito repellents and long sleeve shirts and long pants. Long pants that can be converted to short pants are practical. Always pack at least one warm clothing as even in tropical forest can be cold at night. Take enough socks and underwear. Leave your fancy underwear at home and use cotton underwear in the field. You will feel more comfortable while working. So, be aware of what you pack and its weight. Pack for the time you will expend in the field and not be afraid to wash your clothes. It is usually better than carry more than you will use.

If you love to read and want to read during your fieldtrip, take advantage of the technology we have available now, when I started 27 years ago, we need to carry printed book and sometimes humidity damage them at the end of our fieldtrip. Now we have tablets and phones that reduce some of the weight of carrying printed books. However, humidity can be an issue in some tropical forest. So use silica gel to protect your electronic devices and pack them in waterproof containers or bags.

Therefore, if you are planning a field trip have in mind your own health and skill, be aware of your bag’s weight when doing your packing. Think about the weather you will be experiencing during your field trip and pack accordingly. And finally, if you are taking your electronic devices plan your packing to reduce any adverse effects of humidity on them.

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Monkeys Forest Tales: What to know about remote fieldwork?

In today’s post we are going to talk about the challenges and opportunities that remote fieldwork can give you. The reason why I want to explore this topic in my blog is because over the years I not only had experienced different types of fieldwork but also found that this kind of different types of remote fieldwork are understood differently in different settings. This is particularly important to understand when you are applying to PhDs, Post Docs and jobs.

When we talk about remote fieldwork in this blog we mean fieldwork in areas of difficult access with very basic conditions of accommodation. Usually with intermittent or null internet connection. Usually in developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Although it can al apply to some remote areas in Australian outback where some of the same conditions apply.

When looking for positions that offers remote fieldwork it is ok to ask what the meaning is of remote as in different cultures that can mean different things. In Colombia, for example, remote means that you will be several days by bus or river in very isolated communities or forest with not potable water, letrines but not necessarily a proper toilet, usually without any internet connection or intermittent connections in certain areas.

In Australia, for example this usually means places far from towns by several hours by car, where there are few houses, probably staying in camping sites. Intermittent internet connection or sometimes none. Near to the central dessert in some cases. In Africa, this usually means areas where you need to travel by car and/ or river for several days, similar to remote areas in Colombia.

But why is important to understand this? Because if you are at different stages of your career that means you will probably accept different conditions in different ways. Usually, if you are younger, you will like some adventure and you won’t mind long travel hours to get there and out. Probably it will be ok for you to not have any internet connection for several weeks or months. This is also important when you have other responsibilities such as kids or family who depends on you.

It is also important to understand these conditions to prepare your bags and how to pack for those areas, always ask questions about what to pack, for what kind of weather, if you need to take additional medicines or food. It is always better to take medicines for stomach problems as it is a common problem when working in remote areas without potable water. Also try to not carry to much, especially if the travel you will do implies that you will have to walk carrying your own bags. Don’t pack too much, be aware of your own waste.

During your preparations ask questions about how easy it will be to get emergency attention and how fast you can be taken out of those remote areas. Prepare an emergency plan and leave instructions with family or friends about emergency plans. While working in remote areas be aware of your own skills and don’t put yourself at risk just because you want to show off. Do your work well done but having your security and others in mind…And enjoy as much as you can as it is possible that at other stages of your life that won’t be possible to do it…

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Monkeys Forest Tales: News from the field: new babies and babies growing

In today’s post I want to give a quick update of the monkey’s life in our study area. First, I want to apologize with all of you for my lack of posting two weeks ago. Unfortunately, in Colombia there are still some areas in which internet connection is not continuous and make some aspects of our current life difficult. So, basically, we had some internet issues in the part of Colombia where we are at the moment that didn’t allow us to share with you our regular post.

As you may recall from past post from February this year, we have new babies in several of the Colombian squirrel monkey’s groups. In our last visit we count them again and we found the same number of babies, although more independent than before and in some cases moving along their mothers for short distances.

Some of the red howler monkey’s babies are now older and playful juveniles. At this time of the year, we observed some of them with botflies in their necks and abdomen. Adults also have botflies at this time, may be due to the increase in rain.

We also detected a new baby in one of the dusky titi monkey groups that we didn’t see in our last visit. The forest has some fruit although this year although the rainy season started a bit later than in other years. In this fieldtrip we also found a Brumback night monkey group in a nest we thought they abandon completely, as we didn’t see them using it for more than a year.

This time we didn’t see any trace of coatis as in other visits, but it could be that they are using other forest fragments as it seems their home ranges includes more than one forest fragment in this highly transformed landscape.

Heavy rains are usual at this time and some parts of the forest as well as small fragments are flooded at the moment, making the forest more humid and noisy (more frog are singing)…

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