Monkey Forest Tales: Some reflections about “colonialism in science” related to this project

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In today’s post, I want to talk about something that has been in my mind for a couple of days. Recently, an article talking about colonialism in science, makes me reflect on how this project has been conducted over the years. The article talked about how research projects in many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are leaded by people from developed countries who come to all these countries to do research and pay none or very poor attention to training local people to collect and lead research on their own wildlife.
Although in Colombia, our war history has stopped many foreign researchers to work in the country, my own professional and training history working with monkeys came from foreign researchers coming to Colombia to research and train Colombians to study monkeys.
However, although I am a national of the country where I do research, I came from a different region, and most of the students I had over the years came from different regions until recently, that I started to collaborate with a regional university. So despite being a national there is still some kind of colonialism thinking in the way we accept and train people to do a research between regions inside of Colombia.
The reasons why this happens don’t seem too clear for me, except that the students I trained are the ones who had shown an interest in monkeys even if they are not from the region where we were working. However, this can also be influenced by less interest or encouragement in regional universities to study the local wildlife.
In addition, although in the last years there is more interest in Colombia to study monkeys, especially the ones in a more critical situation, there is still a lot of emphasis in schools to talk about animals that are from other parts of the world such as tigers, or pandas, or elephants and lions, than talking about the animals we have in our country. Something I think it has to do with a colonialism way to teach science even at primary and high school levels.
So, even if we don’t want to admit it, I think we encourage in some way the colonialism thinking in the way we teach science and train our students. Probably we need to be more aware of this and encourage students from regional universities to be trained in the study of local fauna. As well as incentives the biology programs in regional universities.

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Monkey Forest Tales: How the COVID-19 is affecting this project?

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I apologize for missing last week’s post. As it is happening to most of all due to COVID-19 some of my priorities changed a bit. In today’s post, I want to talk about how the pandemic had impacted this project. As mentioned in previous posts, this is a project run not only with personal funds but also limited to a few people. Most people working at the moment in the project are undergraduate students, therefore with the limited movement allowed to us due to our national lockdown, most of their projects are stopped.
Additionally, I am also not allowed to travel, so data collection for our long term monitoring of monkey populations in the study area is also stopped. As our last field trip was in February, we were allowed to count the new babies from this year’s season of Colombian squirrel monkeys and dusky titi monkeys. However, since then, there has not been any data collected in the study area. Apart from local people reports in some farms, where the monkeys have been seen near to the houses in May.
As part of the goals of this project for 2020, we started some monitoring of Colombian squirrel monkeys in Villavicencio city, the biggest city in the region, and although with difficulty because of the movement restriction we have at the moment, some data collected on some groups with less periodicity that we used to do in San Martin area.
At the beginning of this project, back in 2004 -2005, I tried to train some local younger people as field assistants, teaching them basic data collection techniques, however as time passes and with the continuous changing of workers in the farms where this project is focused, people trained moved to other farms at the beginning and to other towns later, making more difficult to have locals as field assistants.
So, with the situation we are living at the moment it seems even more important for us to start implementing a more effective way to collect our long term monitoring data to allow us to continue to monitor monkeys populations despite the limitations we are facing at the moment.
In addition to the concerns related to our restrictions at the moment to collect data, there are the possibility that our travelling to the study area can affect the local people and monkeys due to the virus spread. COVID-19 is a virus that has the ability to move across species and therefore it is a potential risk for monkey populations in the study area and in all natural habitats where they live. So although we want to continue with our project and long term monitoring of monkeys, for now our activities are limited and constrained to anecdotal data.

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Monkey Forest Tales: What is the impact of wild animal consumption on wildlife and humans?

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We had been hearing a lot about how the current pandemic was originated from the consumption of wild animals. In our last post we talk about the reasons for people to use and consume animal parts. So in today’s post we are going to talk about how that have different impacts on wildlife and humans.
The impact that hunting wild animals for consumption had on those animal populations depend on different factors influenced by the behavior and biology of those animals. For example, hunting monkeys for consumption or to use some of its parts had a high impact on their populations. The reason for this high impact is because most monkey’s species had a very low reproduction rate, this means they have babies not every year. This is specially true for medium and large monkeys, which have babies every three up to six years, depending on the species. In animals like rats or capybaras and other rodents which reproduce more often, it’s impact can be less strong.
This practice also affects people because when we eat other animals, wild and/ or domestic we had the probability to get some of the parasite, bacteria and viruses that they usually have. That is one of the reasons for all the regulations that domestic animals production had to comply with.
Those regulations are not in place for wild animal consumption and the conditions in which these animals are kept and traded increase the risk of contamination between animals of the same and other species as a recent study showed (Huong et all. 2020). Data from this study showed that the amount and prevalence of viruses, specifically coronavirus, such as the one causing the current pandemic, increases through the supply chain that market wild animals for human consumption in Vietnam and which present similar conditions to wildlife markets in South America, where multiple species are kept together in crowded and poor hygienic conditions.
Huong, N.Q. et al. 2020.Coronavirus testing indicates transmission risk increases along wildlife supply chains for human consumption in Viet Nam, 2013-2014. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.06.05.098590
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Monkey Forest Tales: Some reasons for wild animal consumption: tradition, status and cultural beliefs

Today’s post is about some of the reasons for people’s use and consumption of wild animals. Since we appear on earth our diet had depended on animals and plants. We change our animal consumption habits depending on where we live and how we live.
So for example, people in the Amazon depend on forest and river species to support their protein consumption, while in some parts of Africa, people depend on savanna’s animals to eat or Aboriginal people in Australia depended traditionally on kangaroos to survive. Since the beginning of agriculture and livestock animal domestication, our consumption habits had changed. Sometimes restricted by cultural beliefs and religious constraints.
However, in many parts of the world, there is still a high number of wild animals consumed for different reasons. Some are consumed because culturally people believe those animals give them some mystical powers or protect them from diseases and bad spirits or because it gives them some status. Sometimes there is a combination of some or all of them.
In the study area, there is a combination of tradition and cultural beliefs that motivates the consumption of wild animals by local people. Traditionally there are some animals typical from the region that have been consumed just because it’s tradition and a typical dish in the region, despite the long history of cattle ranching in the area since colonial times.

Some parts of animals are used as remedies against tropical diseases such as malaria. There is still a belief that if you used the hyoids bone from red howler monkeys you can be cured of malaria. Another local belief rooted in the macho culture of the area is that some preparation with the penis bone from a male coati can cure you of erectile dysfunction.

Some other animals are consumed because their meat is tasty, like armadillos, tapirs, caiman, deer,  capybaras, and peccaries. All of them were common in the study area, and now are less common and illegally hunted. And in some ways, there are considered a delicacy for some locals.
Although monkeys in the study area are not heavily hunted for consumption, the pet trade is a higher threat, there is still a lot of work to do in this topic.

Although it is difficult to change people’s habits and beliefs, education and in some cases some of the traditional taboos and seasonal bans could be used to reduce the illegal consumption of wild animals in the area. Although monkeys in the study area are not heavily hunted for consumption, the pet trade is a higher threat, there is still a lot of work to do in this topic
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Monkeys Forest Tales: A bit of history from the area

Today’s post is about a bit of the history of the study area and San Martin town. San Martin town is one of the oldest towns in the region. It was established in 1585 and it was a center for cattle ranching activities since then. Located in the Camoa’s river banks, this small town has a privileged position which make it an area of high diversity.
It’s main economic activities, cattle ranching, palm oil plantations (since 1970’s approximately) and more recently petrol exploration are the main threats to it’s biodiversity.
Santa Rosa farm, the center area of this project, was a compulsory stop for cattle ranchers transporting cattle from the serranias (natural savanna’s in the Eastern part of the town) towards the commercial centers since the colony period. Although this farm had a long history of cattle ranching and human exploration of forest resources, since the beginning of this project there has been a change in the management of their forest towards a better preservation of it’s natural resources.
The story of cattle ranching in the area had left a mark in the landscape and continue to impact it’s forest fragments today. A common practice in the area is to allow the entrance of cattle and horses to the gallery forest to roam and drink water. The main forest fragments that remains in the area are gallery forest. This practice had lead to forest fragments with poor understory, only few of the seedlings grow to be adult trees as cattle use them as food or to rubber their backs.
This impact is also seen in forest fragments of lowland rain forest near to the main small rivers in the area, such as the Camoa, Cumaral and Chunaipo, which are the tributaries of the Meta river in it’s source. The areas that has been deforested now are covered with introduced pastures such as Brachiaria spp. And more recently had been replaced by palm oil.
The other area in which this project was developed (2008 – 2019), is a natural reserve in which larger relicts of lowland rain forest and gallery forest persisted due to the visionary management of their owners who had protected big forest fragments that still conserve the original fauna of the region. These big areas of forest seems to be functioning as source population of many mammal species that otherwise will be locally extinct. Some examples of this is the persistence of tapirs, jaguars, cougars and the two peccaries, white-lipped and collared peccaries. Both species are abundant in this area. Although the white-lipped peccary used to roam around the town square, they have not reached the town since more than a decade ago, according to local people.
Despite the long history of human activities in this area the biodiversity present still maintain populations that seems to be stable, at least for some primates. However, the changes brought by palm oil plantations and petrol exploration, which increase the arrival of people from other regions with other cultural values and habits. This new arrivals can increase the pressures for the local fauna. An awareness and education program, as well as a continuous monitoring of the deforestation process in the area are important steps in the area to increase the probabilities to persist for the fauna in the area.
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Monkey Forest Tales: How monkeys avoid competition with other species?

When looking at all the animals who live in the forest, we sometimes ask ourselves how they get their food without competing with other species. If you remember your biology classes, when we talk about what animals eat, there is a list of food categories like fruits, leaves, flowers, other animals…
But in tropical forest where there is a high diversity of animals, it have to be some kind of overlapping between what different animals can eat. So, they do to not compete between them and still get enough food to live.
There are several strategies. For example some species that eats mostly the same food categories living in the same forest avoid competition by being nocturnal instead of diurnal, like the Brumback night monkeys in the study area who’s diet overlaps mostly with dusky titi monkeys and with whom they sometimes even share nesting sites.
Other strategy is to use different substrates or different feeding heights. For example, Colombian squirrel monkeys and black-capped capuchins which both consumed insects and spiders. This two species also forms mixed troops, big groups of both species moving and eating together. One way in which they reduce competition is by searching insects and spiders in different substrates.

So black-capped capuchins looks more in dead branches while squirrel monkeys look under live and dead leaves. Also when they move in mixed troops they used to go at different heights, with black-capped capuchins using the canopy more than the medium and lower parts of the forest. However, they sometimes mixed and even go to the ground and search on fallen leaves all together.

Another example of using different heights to avoid competition between them happen when they all meet at big fig trees, where you can see up to three species eating from the same tree but at different heights, with red howler monkeys at the top, black-capped capuchins in the middle and squirrel monkeys at the lower branches or all around the tree.
Also, there are species that simply avoid each other. For example, it is common that dusky titi monkeys move from a fruit tree where they were feeding when black-capped capuchins arrive.

A different strategy used for other monkey species is to eat unripe fruits instead of waiting for the fruits to mature an become more tasty for other species.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Primates as herbivorous and the coexisting forces that shape this relationship

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Coming back to our series of posts talking about the different roles that monkeys have in the forest. Another important role of primates in the habitats in which they live is their roles as herbivorous, specifically by consuming leaves, fruits and flowers, without having in mind their complementary role as seed dispersers, which we already discussed here.
There is a strong and sometimes narrow relationship between monkeys and the plants they feed on. In the case of plants used by monkeys for their fruits, there is an important balance in terms of the nutrients those fruits give to the monkeys and at the same time how much energy and resources those plants put to produce fruits that are attractive to the monkeys they want to consume them and help them to disperse.
In the case of plants which leaves are consumed by monkeys, their relationship is based on two opposite sides. One for the plant, which needs to find a way to protect its leaves from being consumed, especially the young ones, because plants need them to function. Therefore some plants invest a lot of energy and resources to make those young leaves less attractive by adding some chemicals that make them taste bad or being toxic. In the case of mature leaves, the plant strategy varies to make it’s structure more difficult to process and at the same time make them less tasty. This is the reason why monkeys feeding on a diet with a high proportion of leaves had different behavioral and physiological adaptations to survive on this type of diet.
One of those behavioral strategies is to spend time on the top of big trees taking sun baths that help them to process the heaviness of a diet full of leaves. This is one of the reasons also, for example for red howler monkeys to spend so much time sleeping and taking sun baths, they need time and energy to digest the leaves they consumed. They are not lazy as you could think from the many hours they spend sleeping during the day.
Other monkeys had developed a more specialized stomach that help them to process the toxins and high fiber contents of leaves, such as the monkeys from the colobus family in Africa and Asia, which had specialized stomach, in some cases similar to the cow’s stomach.
There is an additional strategy used by red howler monkeys, the most folivorous of the monkeys in the study area. This strategy consist on consuming soil from salt licks or from termite’s nests. It seems some minerals in these soils help them to eliminate toxins from the leaves they consume.
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Monkey Forest Tales: Celebrating the resilience of the biodiversity of highly fragmented landscapes

Figura 1 Xyomara Carretero-Pinzón. Decision Point

This week, on May 22nd, we celebrate the biodiversity day. A celebration of the diversity of all living things. Although highly fragmented landscapes have less biodiversity than a more pristine, less fragmented areas, it still maintains biodiversity.

Something that a lot of people, including scientists and especially conservationists, seem to forget. One of the main characteristics of biodiversity is its resilience, this means its capacity to recover after a difficult event.

Living in a fragmented landscape means that the resources (food, mates, nesting sites, etc.) and space are reduced and altered in some way. Therefore, that fragmentation and loss of habitat are those difficult events for many species of plants and animals, that need to recover and persist even after the better condition of their habitat has been altered.

For monkeys, for example, this sometimes means living in smaller territories or to use not so friendly spaces to get where food is available, or to travel long distances to eat some special food or to find a new mate. It also means facing new predators and eat new foods.

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For some plants these new conditions mean to grow in a place with more light than a particular plant is used to, or with more restriction, or competing with new species that they weren’t in contact before.

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However, some of them have the capacity to recover and adapt to those new conditions and although in a simpler way to making the forest fragments to continue to function in an altered environment. These functioning forest fragments still give us, humans, some of the most important services that biodiversity provides. Without some of those services, such as clean water, oxygen, functional soils, pollinators our crops and livestock could not survive.

So, in this post, I want to share with you some images of that resilient biodiversity that still live and thrive in the highly fragmented landscape where I have the privilege of work for more than a decade.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Importance of monkeys as preys

Another important role of monkeys in the habitats in which they live in their roles as prey. In today’s post, we are going to talk about this in detail.

If you remember from your biology classes at school, in nature there is a web in which different animals feed on other animals, when an animal eats another animal it is called predator, and the animal that is eaten is called the prey. As a prey and a predator, an animal can be located at different parts in the food web, except for the top predators, the animals who feed on another major predator.

As we saw in my last post, monkeys can be predators, but they can also be prey, mainly from different species of wild cats or other carnivorous such as foxes and tayras. And on some occasions they can be prey for other primate species too. For example, red colobus is a well-known prey for chimpanzees in Africa. In the Neotropics (i.e. Latin America), there are several reports of titi monkey species as opportunistic prey of different species of capuchin monkeys.

In the study area, we had observed black-capped capuchins preying opportunistically on an adult of Brumback’s night monkeys. No other events like this have been observed until now, however, we had seen at least two near predation events of tayras preying on black-capped capuchins and Colombian squirrel monkeys in the study area.

Monkeys in the study area are also prey to feral dogs. Most dogs that had escaped from near farms, had been left in the road, abandon or dogs that had been left to roam freely in the farm’s forest and pastures.

Also, crested caracaras had been observed attacking black-capped capuchin and Colombian squirrel monkeys when they are using the living fences to cross between forest fragments.

In the biggest forest fragments in the study area, we suspect that primates are also preys of ocelots, margays, oncillas, cougar, jaguars, tayras, short-eared dogs, anacondas and crested eagles. All these predators have been observed in the study area but only tayras we had observed attacking monkeys.

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Monkey Forest Tales: Monkeys as predators

In today’s post we are going to explore the importance of monkeys as predators, an important function inside of the food web in forest fragments.

As part of the diet of many species of monkey they consume animal preys of different sizes. Some species consume only insects, mollusk and spiders, but some other also consume small vertebrates such as birds, frogs, small mammals and lizards. Therefore, they became predators to some animals in the forest where they live.

Predators meet an important function in food webs and in the general functioning of ecosystems by controlling the populations of the species they predate on. One example of how monkeys help in this matter is when they predate on caterpillars from some butterfly species who can eat a complete tree during their populations boom.

In the study area black-capped capuchins and Colombian squirrel monkeys had been observed feeding on those caterpillar for several days on the same tree, reducing their population and in this way helping that tree to survive.

Black capped capuchins and Colombian squirrel monkeys are also opportunistic predators of small vertebrates such as birds, small mammals, frogs and lizards, having an important influence in the population dynamics of these animals as in some cases they predate more often on younger animals such bird eggs or chicks and mammals babies (Carretero-Pinzón et al 2008, Fragszy et al 2004).

Observations of dusky titi monkeys and Brumback nigh monkeys consuming insects and spider also suggest that they fulfill a function as predators, although with lower intensity than black-capped capuchins and Colombian squirrel monkeys.

Red howler monkeys is an herbivorous species which mainly consume fruits, flowers and leaves. Although it has been reported an opportunistic consumption of chicken eggs in fragmented areas of Brazil for a related species (Bicca-Marques et al, 2009), this behavior had not been observed in the study area.

Bicca-Marques JC, Barboza-Muhle C, Mattjie Prates H, Garcia de Oliveira S, Calegaro-Marques C (2009) Habitat impoverishment and egg predation by Alouatta caraya. International Journal of Primatology 30: 743-748.

Carretero-Pinzón, X., Defler, T.R. & S. Ferrari. 2008. Wild Black Capped capuchins (Cebus apella) feeding on a night monkey (Aotus brumbacki) in eastern Colombian Llanos. Neotropical Primates 15 (2): 62 – 63.

Fragaszy, D.M., Visalberghi, E., and L.M. Fedigan (eds) 2004b. The complete capuchin: The biology of the genus Cebus, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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