Friday, September 10, 2010

Well, I've been a resident of Columbus for about two hours shy of a week now. I have a nearly complete apartment (no internet yet, and other things keep popping up. Paper towel dispenser. A thingy to put in the shower to hold shampoo. Something else to put in the living room so it's not just a couch and a bookcase), a complete room (I put my bed together all by myself - it arrived in a box full of lumber and screws), and some well-stocked cabinets. Today I'll make my second grocery run. I have to go to the library this weekend to return books and DVDs I borrowed. I know my way from the student union to the anthropology building to the science library, and I have a wireless password. I'm practically a regular at the coffee shop across the street from my apartment (they have free wireless, too), and I've found great Ethiopian and great Mediterranean.

I haven't met very many people yet, but the next week looks promising. On Saturday, I'm planning on going to the botanical garden with "Central Ohioans for Rational Inquiry" (hopefully avoiding the crush of 110,000 people headed to the football game). There's swing dancing on Tuesday, and I'm going out to dinner on Wednesday (Somali!) with a group of people from the area who I know through a website we all post on regularly. The other anthropology students start showing up in the next week or so, and classes start in a week and a half! Things are looking pretty good :-)

Monday, August 2, 2010

New Hampshire is not the rainforest

After almost 3 months of being in a temperate climate, I think I've finally readjusted. I've stopped needing to sleep under a blanket at night and sweatshirts rarely feel like the right clothing choice. The cats and dog don't look quite so monstrously large any more, I don't get urges to catch any large-ish orthopteran I see to feed to a hideously ravenous monkey. My neck doesn't feel strangely light without binoculars, and I don't think I could climb up a cliff right now.

I've beenwhiling away the time at home, for the most part. May included a trip to Columbus to dance and meet other graduate students, and graduation came and went in a whirl.

In June, I took the train to Chicago and went to the Lincoln Park Zoo, where I fell in love with some Allen's Swamp Monkeys. Then it was back to St. Louis for some more dancing followed by an extravagant week of traveling in California. I spent 8 hours at the San Diego Zoo where I fell in love with even MORE monkeys.

I took trains and buses up the coast and really enjoyed myself. Since then, it's mostly been working as an engineer and occasionally heading down to Boston and dancing. I have a number of friends around, and it's been wonderful catching up with people before they scatter to all corners of the earth (literally. Central Ohio is very tame. I have friends who will be in Korea, China, London, Paris, Zimbabwe, California, etc. doing things as varied as studying the circus, teaching English, and working for Facebook). I move to Columbus at the very beginning of September. I have a roommate and an apartment about 2 miles from campus. The prospect of preparing for graduate school and adultish life is very exciting, though really I wish I was headed to the rainforest, Kenya, or both. Soon enough!

Friday, May 7, 2010

El fin de Viaje

The man at Karine, the fruit stand in the Mercado, still remembers me. I catch his eye as I approach the line of fruit stands (having passed the line of shoe stands and the line of plastic bucket stands) and he starts laughing, probably remembering the earlier fruit excursion - mounds of apples, plums and grenadillas, plus three avocadoes all squirreled away to sustain us during the strike. A polite kiss on the cheek later, I explain that, sadly, this is my last morning in Peru and I wanted to buy some fruit for the plane. And say goodbye, of course. I take a plum and he adds a grenadilla to my bag. "This is your food for the plane?" he asks. When I nod, he takes the back back from me and adds a kiwi,, three apples, and an unidentified fruit that looks suspiciously like a tomato,but, he assures me, is really a fruit from the forest. He won't let me pay for them, and waves goodbye. "Ojalá, nos vemos!"

Two days earlier, I was sixty meters in the air. The sun had just peaked out over the horizon, and within one minute shone brightly in its entirety. Coincident with the sunrise, a flock of scarlet macaws flew by 30 feet below me but still high above the canopy. The sounds of titis and howlers reaffirming their territories' integrity filtered up to where I sat. Ronald and I sat against the metal poles on the platform, the two of us still wearing the rock climbing harnesses we'd hooked onto the wire guideline as we scaled the ladder to the platform. Minutes pass and the forest below us wakes up. The nightjars, jaguars, and owl monkeys are asleep and now the screaming peahens and emperor tamarins take over.

Ronald and I head down to Puerto together. We managed to avoid the Collectivo by hitching a ride on a boat from Boca Amigos going down with a motor to be fixed and a huge quantity of cases full of empty beer bottles to return in Puerto. It started raining at 2:00 in the morning with a brief lull at 4 when I ran from my cabin to the lab without getting completely soaked. On the river, though, with my raincoat, a poncho and a tarp over my head, I am drenched and sit in cold water for about five hours. On the bright side - this is the first time in four months that I've shivered!

And now, here I am, taking off. The air conditioning in the plane sends visible clouds into the humid rainforest air that followed me on. I guess it's similar to whatever fogs your breath on chilly mornings. My seatbelt is fastened, the trees speed past, and now I'm up in the air. People are all very clean, and my seat is squishy and comfortable. There are no baby monkeys peeing in my hair, no fer-de-lances hiding next to the doors. For a while I follow he meanders of Rio Madre de Dios through the green below, but now we're up above the clouds and the only thing I can see is white, punctuated by occasional mountain tops. Away we go!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Who is this Chiky Basterd, anyway?

Chiky was probably born in the Peruvian Amazon, some ways east of here. He arrived at the perfect time to be born a tamarin, right in the heart of the rainy season when the biggest and best trees are fruiting, and food is abundant, late November or early December. His group consisted certainly of a mother and a father, and there were probably also one or two other adults in the group. It's also quite likely that he had a twin who would travel aroud with him on their father's back.

One day, probably quite early in Chiky's life, something went wrong. Maybe he fell off of his father's back and was scooped up by miners in the area. Maybe someone came looking for baby tamarins to sell and took him and and his twin. Maybe something else happened. But the point is somehow, Chiky ended up in a butcher shop in Puerto Maldonado as a little girl's treasured pet. He's certainly not the only monkey to end up like that - I've seen baby capuchins and howler monkeys in the mercado. Chiky would eat the bugs and scraps of meat from the floor, and otherwise spent most of his time perched on her shoulder.

At about this time, we on the monkey project were beginning to despair. Monkeys were ignoring our bananas, and no matter how elaborate our traps or how frequently we spread overripe bananas throughout the jungle, they just weren't getting the hint. Though she had initially been resistant to the idea, Mini began considering getting a caller monkey. Caller monkeys are usually babies taken in a cage to sit by a trap and vocalize. The idea is that their vocalizations attract other monkeys to the traps. It's worked very well for other researchers, so Mini decided that it was worth trying. In early February, she and Gideon went down to Puerto to try to find a baby pichico.

After a lot of searching aroud mercados and friends of friends of friends, they ended up at the Carneterria Chiky was calling home. After some haggling over the loss of a pet, they paid the family some amound of money and took Chiky to Taricaya, a rehab center that returns animals from a variety of origins to the forest. They agreed to take Chiky as an animal confiscated from the pet trade, and allow us to borrow Chiky for the duration of the project. Ultimately, he'll be rehabilitated and end up part of a group of his own.

Chiky's full name, bestowed upon him by the man in charge at Taricaya, is The Chiky Basterd Guy, and it refers to (among other things) his strong aversion to being held, the biting that inevitably follows when you try, and his insatiable, terrifying appetite for live grasshoppers. The noise he makes when approached by a scientist bearing orthopterans is almost indescribable - some awful combination of the Tasmanian devil, a very petulant child, and a caterwauling stray, but higher pitched and more frantic. The noise is the same, whether the grasshopper in question is his first or fifteenth. One memorable day, this 200 gram, four month old monkey put away 27!! I've joked that Chiky could eat a jaguar if it was wearing a bug costume, and I still believe that to be true.

Chiky lives in a decent sized cage in our labe, constructed from galvanized hardware cloth, termite-free wood, anticipation, and excitement before his arrival. He has a ball to roll around and a baby rattle to hang from and shake. He climbs a rope ladder and perches on a shelf for us to rub his belly through the mesh. At night, he either sleeps in his towel hammock or the plastic trashcan suspended from the side of the cage and stuffed with fluffy towels. He gets taken to the field everyone morning where he sits in his cage close to the trap and whines, his baby calls enticing other monkeys to our trap. But someday soon, Chiky will get to live in the jungle for real, without the barrier of wire mesh separating him from the plants and the other monekys. He will hunt his own grasshoppers, hopefully after learning to suppress his terrible noise, and wheedle his way into a pichico group, probably in a way very similar to the way he's wheedled his way so firmly into ours.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

And look ... a bat!

One of the really cool things about being here at the research station is meeting and interacting with all of the other researchers here. Everyone is studying an impressive variety of things. I’m sure I’m missing people, but aside from the pichico team, there are people studying: raptors and mercury, ant-tree interactions, ants, mosquitoes, seed dispersal by primates, mining-site regeneration, the short-eared dog, bats, long-horn beetles, peccary, and the essential oil of the palm fruit.

The other night, Adrian asked if we wanted to help him set up mist nets to catch bats. Mini, Gideon, Adrian’s parents (visiting from Miami), Sarah, Musmuqi the owl monkey, and I headed out to the appointed trail a little before dusk. Earlier in one of our trapping attempts, Adrian helped us set up mist nets to snag tamarins. It was, sadly, unsuccessful, so we were all eager to see mist netting in action.
Mist nets are long, wide nets with a mesh of maybe ½ inch squares. They have 5 or 6 guidelines running taut along the length of the net, with loose mesh creating pockets running along beneath the guidelines. They are frighteningly prone to tangle, but when untangled and stretched out by bamboo poles on either side, they cover from about 3-10 feet off the ground for maybe 20-30 feet. The mesh is thin enough that bats (and birds, who are also frequently mist-netted) don’t see it and fly into the netting, where they get tangled up enough that they can’t fly back out. The getting stuck technique was brilliantly demonstrated by Musmuqi, who is really getting great at launching himself onto a variety of hanging objects. In case you’re wondering, it takes 3 people about 10 minutes to extricate a struggling baby owl monkey from a mist net, and they’ll only get bitten 4 or 5 times.

Fortunately for the bats, Adrian is much more adept at removing them than we are at removing owl monkeys (perhaps it’s for the best that we didn’t catch tamarins in our mist nets!). When the night began, Adrian said 5 bats would be a good night! Our sights set high as dusk fell, everyone spread out along the nets, waiting for the first visitor. We didn’t have long to wait, as an exciting, small, insectivorous bat flew directly into the net shortly after everything was set up. Bats are really amazing looking little guys. The ones we were catching all had nose-leafs, protrusions of skin on their noise that look like small, bat-skin-colored leaves (they were, appropriately enough, the Leaf-Nosed bats. Similar, but unrelated to Odd-Nosed monkeys). The skin between the digits on their wings is thin and rubbery – imagine something between a balloon, a rubber glove, and a tissue. Seeing the wings all spread out next to someone’s arm was like one of those illustrations of homologous structures from an introductory biology textbook.

All told, Adrian netted 9 bats in about an hour and a half. Those of us on the tamarin team were impressed, but also painfully jealous! If only the monkeys were so eager to fall into our clutches… Unfortunately, trapping tamarins is a pretty arduous task. I believe I mentioned the Chiky Basterd Guy, our baby monkey who calls to attract wild tamarins to the trap. He gets taken out to a trap every day for about 7 hours, plied with bananas and water, and acts as bait to entice the other tamarins to come eat our yummy bananas so we can steal their genetic data. Slow going (after more than a week here, we’re VERY excited that the group sniffed a bunch of bananas today), but if this spot works well, we’ll add another 18 monkeys to our trapped column!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Final Hurrah!

The mining strike ended on April 7 as the government agreed to give more recognition to miners. I’m not entirely sure what the details of the negotiations were, but in the end, the miners went home happily and peacefully from Puerto Maldonado. No buildings were burned, and in Puerto, no one was killed. My friend Sarah, whose university in Lima is notorious for frequent and strong strikes, was a little disappointed in how tranquil the strike was, but all in all, I’m glad I have no better stories to tell than “I spent 6 days in doors and ate a lot of increasingly stale bread while watching bad American TV.” I really appreciate everyone's thoughts during the strike - sorry I made folks nervous.

This morning, I’m heading back to CICRA. We have a lot of work to catch up on since we had 10 days with nobody watching the monkeys. I also have a lot of laundry to do!! I am going to be so excited about washing machines when I get back to the States!!

I have 25 days before I leave Peru. I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. Days are very long here, but weeks go by before I notice time changing. There are some things at CICRA I haven’t done that I still need to – see Pozo Don Pedro, home of the anaconda. Work up the courage to climb the 60m tall tower. Head out to Segund Mirador and see the capybaras. There are still more monkeys to be trapped, more data to be entered, more focal observations to be transcribed … it’ll be a busy 3 and a half weeks! I’m planning on coming back to Puerto Maldonado on May 3 – a friend wants to take me to see a place where they have lots of snakes, I’ll have a final day of eating marvelous passion fruit ice cream (yesterday I had passion fruit and chocolate chip. Yum!!), and maybe I’ll learn how to drive a motorcycle!

And once I get back to the US, I've got a lot to look forward to. Being home will be marvelous and wonderful, and I just signed up for a Lindy and Blues exchange in my future hometown, Columbus, the weekend before graduation. A lindy exchange is when a bunch of dancers (150 or so in this exchange) converge on one town for a weekend and dance literally the whole time. I'm hoping that I'll meet lots of cool swing dancers and also be able to apartment hunt. If nothing else, I'll know people in Columbus who hopefully wouldn't mind me crashing with them for a few days while I find an apartment. After that, I go back to school and hang out with all of my Wash U friends until we graduate. Then, of course, there's graduation. Then two weeks after that, I head BACK to St. Louis for a blues exchange, where I'll spend the whole weekend blues dancing with some really cool people! Then it's the summer ... and then I can officially become a graduate student. Life is a whirlwind!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

How long can you stay in one room without going crazy?

Life is a little surreal right now. I’m about halfway through my 6th day in Puerto, and going on 96 hours without leaving the hotel. I’m sitting on a remarkably comfortable bed with a fan blowing directly at me. I have a refrigerator that, while less full of food than I’d like considering that the strike is still officially indefinite, does have cold Coca-Cola and a few plums (and other stuff, don’t worry). The internet works intermittently, and the two times I’ve turned on the TV, I’ve watched an episode of Third Watch and the Yankees-Red Sox game (wish it’d gone better, but still very exciting).

Outside, I occasionally hear angry men shouting through bullhorns. I can only catch a few words intermittently – mineros, lucha, the names of Alan Garcia and Brack followed by jeers and boos. Every now and then, we hear The city seems pretty quiet right now. Earlier this morning, police helicopters were flying overhead so low that I could practically see the pilots’ faces. We’re not entirely sure what’s going on now in Puerto, but we’re doing fine here. It’s almost time for lunch – probably avocado and tuna sandwiches. I’m almost done with my second bottle of Coke, so it’ll be water for me for the rest of the strike. We’ve still got a bunch of big bottles, so that shouldn’t be too bad. Dinner has been pasta and tuna and cucumber, or ramen noodles. We’ve still got some apples and peaches, and I think granadillas as well – a tangy fruit that looks and tastes a lot like passion fruit.

Stocking up on groceries before the strike was fun. Sarah went out with us to the mercado to help us buy things – mayonnaise, bread, tuna, coffee powder, pasta, avocados, yogurt. The best find was at the fruit stand we stopped at, staffed by a Peruvian guy probably about 5 or 6 years older than us. About 30 soles into our purchase of plums, granadillas, apples, avocados, peaches, and cucumber, we realized that the stand was named Karina – just like Karina! So Sarah asked what the owner of the store got, since she was right here in front of him. He ended up giving us some oranges for free, and we all walked off giggling. The next morning, we needed to stop at the grocery-esque store to get our ramen and some cookies and other things, but we headed out too early and it wasn’t yet open. We spent a while at one of the DVD piracy stores. Karina got Where the Wild Things Are and Stardust; I got La Princesa y El Sapo – the Princess and the Frog – and 6 Gael Garcia Bernal films on one DVD for the small prices of 8 soles and cheating Walt Disney out of his money. After trying all of those films successfully (and a few others unsuccessfully) to make sure they were either in English or had subtitles, we still had time to spare, so we went back to Karina to supplement our fruit supply. He was happy to see us on our return!

I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be in Puerto. I don’t have a good sense for how the strike is progressing, though it’s officially still indefinite and the government says they will not be caving to the miners’ requests. It still feels very strange to be a Bad Guy. I have lots of research to do when I get back to the US, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be purchasing much gold jewelry in the near future.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Will you be a lousy scab, or will you be a man?

Part of my insistence on adequate preparation for my next traveling experience - rain forest or otherwise - lies in the fact that I feel sort of disjointed here. I am in a rain forest. But nothing about it suggests to me that it is specifically a rain forest in Peru, that it is the Amazon. I place the blame for this mostly on myself - as I mentioned earlier it's mostly my poor knowledge of Spanish and, I would assume, my poor knowledge of what organisms I'm seeing here place me specifically herein the Peruvian Amazon. In Kenya, we were almost, or even more, isolated than here. A four hour drive through the desert to the nearest internet cafe is far more cut off from outside than I am here with my daily internet access. I can't imagine any sort of equivalent here of finding out about Michael Jackson's death via BBC Swahili on a static-distorted radio in the middle of Turkana. But in Turkana, I was completely immersed in the local culture concurrent with fieldwork. Here, I know very little about what's happening in Lima, 4 hours down river, or even on the illegal mining barge across the way. Consequently, what intrusions of reality and context there are into my monkey-chasing haven come as quite as a surprise.

To wit - earlier this month, the Peruvian minister of the environment fundamentally changed the situation for the Madre de Dios district of Peru. In a place where more than 2/3 of the economy relies in some fashion on illegal gold mining to function, suggestions that mining be better regulated (or really, regulated at all), do not go over well. But - that's what has happened. This minister has announced that, among other things, illegal miners will be evicted from the river patches they are mining; in order to be legal, all miners must include an environmental recovery plan; no mining is allowed on the northern shore of the Madre de Dios river; and the use of mercury is no longer allowed, even for legal miners. Predictably, this has infuriated a large portion of the Madre de Dios populace.

Perhaps less predictably, a certain amount of the blame for these new restrictions has been incorrectly placed on CICRA and its parent organization, ACCA. ACCA is interested in creating corridors linking CICRA's concession with another conservation concession further away. They have been talking to private landowners about using undeveloped land for this corridor. For a variety of reasons, though, miners have decided this means CICRA wants to buy up all the land in the area and stop all mining. In recent weeks, folks connected to CICRA have been kicked out of mining towns up river, and vaguely threatened. The threats have gotten more specific, and have been coming from closer and closer to home, especially as we get closer to a planned mining strike on April 4th. These include things like burning down the building at CICRA that houses the library and labs, and trashing other parts of the facilities.

Unfortunately, this means we have to stop everything and evacuate down to Puerto Maldonado. I head down on a boat with the other members of the monkey team in the next couple of days, and we will be hanging out there until the situation calms down - at least April 9, it looks like. We're moving the contents of the lab out into the middle of the jungle in case something does happen, but we're hopeful that the miners will have calmed down and not be interested in actually trashing anything. In an effort to encourage their non-interest, a number of members of the Peruvian military who patrol the Madre de Dios River will be staying at the research station and looking impressive, I guess. We all should be perfectly safe in Puerto, though, and hopefully nothing will happen to CICRA. It is bizarre, though, being on the side of The Man oppressing the common folks in this strike situation. The gold mining industry brings all sorts of complications, but watching this clash of environment and economic development unfold in front of me is really interesting. I just hope my books don't get burned up in the process!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A resolution

I’m sitting on a tarp beneath a mosquito net on the western edge of the Peruvian Amazon. A day of waiting for the monkeys to appear – “Bring a book,” Mini suggests, “otherwise you’re likely to fall asleep.” Sitting in my little bug-free cone, I do get drowsy. The muggy air penetrates what mosquitoes, grasshoppers, and startlingly large red ants can only shuiffle around on in search of a good hole (cleverly covered with duct tape). I am embarrassingly ambivalent about the magic of what is going on aroud me. In the bird song and titi calls, I could discover a thousand dramas – instead, I read a dystopic novel. In the interactions of the three different kinds of ant on my net, I could learn brutal military tactics, but I am content to nibble on some chocolate covered saltines (probably the reason they’re drawn here, anyway).

Rustling in the dry leaves below a liana catches my attention in spurts over the course of an hour. I see movement through the mesh, but can’t ascribe it to anything specific. Sure that it’s not a monkey, and reasonably sure it’s not a snake, I let the noise fade into the background until finally – a giant toad hops out slowly and laboriously. Literally the size of a dinner plate, flat and brown with huge unblinking eyes, he sits and catches his beath, making one good hop every five minutes or so until he has passed out of my sight. I’ve seen other toads like him on the path to my cabin. Their eyes glow purple when they catch my headlight, and they freeze when they know they’ve been seen. They don’t seem too concerned with defense mechanisms, apparently trusting camouflage and a definite air of “I will not be very tasty” to protect them from whatever comes calling.

A little while later, I am distracted from my collection of wildlife essays by movement out of the corner of my eye. I watch a quarter-size spider delicately climb up the mosquito net, hooking each leg into a different hole and gliding past eye level. Last night, Marco brought out a tarantula to show to a visiting group of students. Black fur on an impossibly large body and many-segmented legs with pink fuzzy feet (tarantula slippers) moved from his arm to my hand, crawled up to my elbow and back down to settle over my watch, not really interested in leaving. Eventually, Marco coaxed the spider back, leaving my arm with a vague sensation of lingering spider webs and prickly feet.

I have resolved to know more about everything next time I am in a forest. I’m almost three months in the Puervian Amazon and, though I can speak with certainty about monkeys I’ve seen three or four times, I can’t identify the brilliantly colored grasshoppers with wings that scatter every time I take a step. I can pick out titis and emperor tamarins in the early morning choir of animals waking up, but I can only name one or two of the birds I hear every day. Trees my monkeys eat from regularly are identifiable, but what good are Naucleopsis naga and Inga alba in an entire forest? And, while a constant smile and a smattering of regular Spanish verb conjugations are helpful, I get so frustrated when it is HARD to explain that yesterday morning, the monkeys climbed down an embankment and we followed them. Next time, I will be prepared. I will speak the language, I will hear the sounds. When I have the chance to spend a whole morning in the middle of it all without trying to keep up with small, speedy primates and just watch and absorb – I will leave the books behind.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


To see a place from the right perspective, I’ve come to realize you have to take advantage of whatever mode of transportation most people use to get around on a regular basis. Have you really been to NYC if you haven’t taken the Subway? Amsterdam without a bicycle? Manchester without a Segway? Nairobi without taking a matatu? Puerto Maldonado without a motorcycle?

We’re spending our mid-season break in Puerto Maldonado, a bustling port town where the Tambopata River meets the Madre de Dios. It’s the biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon, a jumping off point for tourists heading to ecolodges, a staging ground for mining operations both legal and illegal, an important stop on the Interoceanic Highway which cuts across South America from Lima to Brazil (exposing miles and miles of the Amazon to illegal settlements, hunting, and agricultural pressure), and the center of regional government. A town with at least four pizza places (though one recently burned down), a great bookstore, several mercados, an Indian restaurant, a variety of discotecas, and heladerias selling ice cream in deliciously exotic flavors like Brazil Nut and Passion Fruit (my two personal favorites), Puerto is a nice diversion from the isolation and occasional deprivation of the rainforest. I won’t tell you how much ice cream I’ve had in the past three days.

Conveniently for us, a bunch of other usual CICRA residents are also in Puerto Maldonado with us. It’s really funny watching people I’m used to seeing moderately to quite dirty in field clothes and mud-covered boots wandering the city looking clean, fancy, but weird in clean jeans, dresses, fancy sandals – sometimes even jewelry! In a series of impulse buys, I’ve bought two dresses, a pair of pretty flip flops, and matching pairs of earrings (of course, it’s added up to about 30 dollars, so I’m not too upset). We’ve gone out dancing twice, played Settlers of Catan with some added twists, and, as I said, eaten a shameful amount of ice cream. It’s been really fun interacting with people in a completely different environment, though. One of the guys who’s around right now is Marco. At CICRA, he’s perhaps best described as the mechanic – he deals with the generator, the water, the lawnmower, some trail maintenance, etc. etc. etc. He’s probably in his mid- to early twenties, and has been hanging out with the monkey team for the past couple of evenings. He also happens to own a motorcycle.

Though Puerto has a lot of people, it doesn’t extend over a HUGE space. Most people get around walking, taking tuk-tuks (three-wheeled, three-seater motorized rickshaws), or by motorcycle. There are motorcycle taxis (one sol for a trip to the plaza, vs. two soles to go by tuk-tuk). Entire families ride on the same motorcycle: Father driving with a four-year-old in front of him holding onto the handles, mother sitting behind him with an infant on her lap. Teenage boy with grandmother’s hands wrapped around his waist, two brothers, two sisters, everyone has a motorcycle. At the discoteca, a lot of people were dancing with their motorcycle helmets still on!

Sunday night at the Discoteca, Marco offered to take us out on his motorcycle to see Puerto, if we wanted. I jumped at the opportunity! So yesterday afternoon, he showed up at the hotel and we went and tooled around. He showed me the port on Madre de Dios where there were giant trucks lined up waiting to cross the river via ferry, as the bridge is still in the “there are two supports erected which were built 10 years ago and have no more funding to actually build a bridge” stage of the project. We went to the much less built-up Tambopata port, and continued up and around through all sorts of parts of town, frightening a number of dogs who were in the road and splashing through an impressive number of puddles. We also stopped at the Tower that overlooks Puerto Maldonado, which you can climb up for 2 soles per person. In my continuing effort to stop being afraid of heights so that I can climb the 60 meter tower at CICRA before I leave Peru, we climbed up this one. It was really beautiful – a thunderstorm was approaching and we could see the lightning through the clouds. It was getting dark, the lights were all visible for a distance until there were no more lights and it was just rainforest forever and ever. The oppressive humidity and heat were dissipated because of wind from the approaching storm … it was pretty wonderful, and almost enough to forget how high up I was!

I’m sort of hoping Marco will be interested in going back out around on the motorcycle in the next couple of days – maybe I’ll learn how to DRIVE a motorcycle, too! If a motorcycling primatologist in the Amazon isn’t intrepid … I don’t know what is.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Late night in the Amazon

It is 11:30 at night – later than I’ve stayed up in a little more than two months. A course from a university in Pennsylvania has just wrapped up their last night at CICRA and bought two cases of beer for everyone from Boca Amigo, the settlement just downriver that keeps illegal miners supplied with alcohol and prostitutes. After the group of students finished their beers, they headed off to bed, leaving the researchers to sit and ponder and finish off what alcohol was left. To one side of me, there is an intense discussion about body image and advertising. To the other, there is an equally intense discussion about potential raunchy Spanish nicknames for a member of my team. The owl monkey bounces along the table across from me, curling up on the arm of a researcher studying primate seed dispersal and I stifle a yawn – ashamed to be so sleepy that I can’t fully participate in any of these possibilities.

Conversation continues to swirl around me – how to market ecotourism, kissing in Bollywood movies, so on, and so forth. By about 11:45, the gathering begins to break up to head bedwards. On our way out, we see light flashing in the sky over the cliff, and everyone heads towards the boardwalk outside the Concrete Dorm to see what is happening.

The sky is completely clear above us. We can’t see the moon, but the Milky Way is stretching right overhead. After a few minutes of looking straight up, several people have seen shooting stars. What’s really amazing, though, is the foothills of the Andes. 70 km south of us, the mountains are obscured by clouds stretching along the horizon. An immense lightning storm is spread across the sky. Horizontal strikes of lightning split the sky and illuminate the clouds. Like an appreciative crowd at a fireworks’ show, everybody Oohs and Aahs at each fork of lightning. I don’t think I can really describe how beautiful it is, standing at the edge of a cliff looking out over the Madre de Dios River, across a huge expanse of forest, and into the Andes, watching this storm approach us.

We stand on the cliff watching for maybe 15 minutes. The ant queens flying around and biting my ankles somehow take a little bit of the magic out of the night, but it all returns when I fall asleep in my bed to the sound of geckos hunting crickets on the screens above my head.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Trapping Tamarins

The main emphasis of Mini’s dissertation is on genetic chimerism in tamarins. Tamarins are unique in a bunch of ways, but one of them is that tamarins habitually have twins. Due to a quirk of the placenta, the blood vessels that supply the twins overlap and cross, and on occasion, bits of stem cells transfer between individuals. Depending on what the cells end up becoming, this can have really interesting consequences. A baby tamarin may have its sibling’s liver cells, or some of its fur, or – in the most exciting cases – its gametes. This means that an animal has the potential to give birth to its sibling’s child. Mini wants to know if this has behavioral effects, especially relating to parenting. The most important thing, then, is to know the genetics of a whole bunch of different bits – hair, nails, blood, sperm, etc. Not the easiest thing to collect in the wild, so one of the things we’ve been doing is attempting to trap groups. This serves the dual purpose of allowing us to put indentifying marks on the monkeys – a radio collar, beaded necklaces, dyed tails – while collecting genetic information.

On March 5, the day’s plan was to trap Jean 4 and FC. We have wire platforms and traps (basically compartments with swinging doors that we can tie closed) dispersed around the jungle in places we know groups hang out, with bananas sitting on them. Jean 4 is a group that we’ve been following pretty consistently, but have yet to trap, and FC is our marked group. We still needed some genetic information from RC, the presumed mother, and the two twins who were too young to be anesthetized when they were initially trapped. Unfortunately, when we went out to trap Jean 4, we realized that what we thought was tamarins eating bananas from traps had actually been capuchin monkeys. So we called that pretty quickly. Karina, Emma and I went out to follow FC for the rest of the day when (surprise) it began to pour! FC went and hid in a bramble while the three of us went to wait out the rain in the lab.

Mini and Gideon were heading back to the lab at the same time (they were much dryer than us because they took a tarp out with them!). They were really excited to hear that FC was so close, so we put up a trap that had been taken down earlier. Emma and Karina stayed with FC, who were still in their bramble, while the rest of us set up the trap. Eventually, all of FC moved around the trap. RC and GPG grabbed the bananas off the top of the trap and the doors while everyone else was swarming around trying to decide if the metal was dangerous, if the bananas were worth chancing the metal, and (once they did), how the heck to get back out! RC was the first monkey we trapped, followed by Twin 2, GBR, and GPG. They get really irritated when they’re trapped, and try really hard to get out – squeaking, struggling, pushing against the mesh, etc. Twin 1 was the only saddleback out of the trap when a group of emps came and investigated the trap. There were about five emps swarming around and in the trap – at least one emp went in the empty compartment and ate bananas, and several emps scent marked and climbed around the top of the trap, especially around GPG. She was not impressed.

Twin 1 was scared off of the trap by the emps and spent the next 20 minutes or so climbing around the back of the trap, between the bottom of the trap and the platform, on trees around the trap, and up on top of it. Gideon approached in the hopes that he could catch Twin 1 if he wouldn’t get in the trap, and also to scare away the emps. The strings of all the compartments except for GBR’s were tied to a tree, and we were focused on getting 1 in a compartment when GPG broke through the mesh of her compartment and escaped. After that happened e decided then to let GBR go and take RC and Twin 2 in to be processed, while GPG, GBR, and Twin 1 stayed out, as it was late enough that we’d need to keep the trapped animals overnight.
Karina and Emma followed the rest of FC to their sleeping site while Mini, Gideon and I prepped the lab for processing. After a little while, we decided to go ahead and start processing Twin 2. I started out just taking notes – noting the weather, times of injection, what samples were being taken, stuff like that. But once RC also was given Ketamine and Karina and Emma came in, I just held on to Twin 2 and started taking data and keeping her cool. We had a wide variety of things to get – fecal samples, cheek swabs, blood samples, stuff like that. We also took a dental cast (baby tamarins have REALLY TINY teeth!) and tried to bleach her tail to make her more distinct from Twin 1. After her bleach had been in for about 30 minutes, I got to give her a bath to wash the excess bleach out. Soaking wet baby tamarins are pretty adorable.

After we finished processing both RC and Twin 2, we put them in the recovery cage. They were definitely groggy, and sort of wobbled around for a little while. We put banana and water in and covered the cage up. When Mini checked on them later that night, Twin 2 was asleep on top of RC. The trapping experience was really cool – it gave me a lot of perspective on the monkeys. They look so big when you’re watching them. Well, that’s a lie. But they definitely look larger than when you’re holding them in your hand. Twin 2 literally fit in the palm of my hand. Her hands were clasped around my finger and she was NOT letting go. 160 grams of monkey is not a whole lot.

Hopefully we'll be trapping more in the future - the problem has been getting them to go IN the trap. We use playbacks of saddleback calls to get them to come to the traps, but they get so caught up trying to find who was calling that they never actually sit down and eat bananas. Mini and Gideon have an agreement with a rehabilitation center to borrow a baby tamarin rescued from the pet trade. He's going to be staying with us for the next couple of months and when we trap, we'll put him out to call to the other monkeys so that they'll go in to investigate. He's set to come next week, so hopefully I'll have lots more trapping stories to tell!!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Who'll stop the rain?

While the rest of the world has its crazy weather and geological events, we’ve been experiencing, well, pretty much what you might expect for the rainforest. Today was the first day in four days that we weren’t rained out of the field (and it poured on us during the afternoon for a number of days before that). I wrote a little about rain in the rainforest earlier, but now I feel like I’m practically an expert. Days frequently start out grey – at least hazy – so you can’t always tell by looking at the sky what the afternoon will bring. Some of the most worrying, greyest clouds in the morning portend really beautiful, sunny afternoons. And the converse is true. But for the past couple of days, it’s just RAINED. And RAINED and RAINED.

When we’re out in the forest following monkeys and it’s raining, there are a number of variables that determine what you do. How hard is it raining? Are you following FC (the marked group), or are you following a new group? How far from camp are you? What time is it? Following FC with even light rain can be sort of pointless because we depend on voice recorders to get most of our data on the twins’ behavior, and they are not to get wet. FC is usually close enough to CICRA that you can head back after maybe 20 minutes to half hour of steady rain and not feel too bad. If you don’t have a raincoat with you, you can maybe even cut a little while off of that (and most days, if it rained the day previously my raincoat is soaked and I can’t stick it in my backpack or it will mold and make me smell). Once it stops raining, you can head back out and use the radio telemetry equipment to find where the group is now.

On the other hand, if you’re following a new group, it usually means that you’re at least a 20 minute hike from camp. It also means that you have no way of finding the group again if you leave them to get out of the rain. We don’t leave a new group unless it’s POURING for a substantial period of time, and even then, more often than not we’ll stick with the group. Especially if it’s the afternoon, it means you’ve put four or five hours into sticking with the group. Losing them before you get a sleeping site means that you have to start out scouting for a new group all over again the next morning – it’s worth getting soaked to know where they’re sleeping and where to find them tomorrow. We’ve started bringing tarps with us to scout in case it rains. Our rain activities in the field include gossiping, reminiscing about food (apple crisp and diet coke are my biggest cravings right now), singing Disney songs, and thinking of songs about rain.

Generally when it rains, the tamarins head up into a bramble in a tree and hide there until the rain stops. They’re small enough monkeys, and it rains heavily enough (especially as water collects in the canopy and falls in bigger drops), that it could do some damage and maybe knock a twin out of a tree, or something like that. It also gets very slippery, as one unwitting tamarin found out. Gideon and I were scouting a new group one afternoon and it started pouring. However, it started raining at 2:45. Doing the calculations, we decided that a potential two hours of getting wet would be worth it to get this group’s sleeping site. But then we saw tamarins moving about 30 meters away from the bramble we were CONVINCED our monkeys were hiding in, and we ran to find them. “What weird tamarin behavior,” we commented, but figured we just had a renegade group that wasn’t scared of the rain. After about two hours of running around in circles in this patch of forest, we determined that we’d scared up a new group of tamarins – at least 14 monkeys in one group! They were moving from one tree to another, and I was following to find their sleeping tree while Gideon was getting an official count of monkeys in the group, when the monkey I was running under (who was carrying a twin) suddenly slipped and fell out of the tree! I stared up in shock at this monkey growing larger and larger above me, and suddenly he bounced off of my shoulder! He hit the ground softly (most of the fall having been absorbed by my body), stared at me in his own shock, and scrambled up a tree with the twin! “Gideon,” I yelled, “they definitely have a twin! The monkey carrying him just fell on me!” Gideon, not really paying attention to me, shouted back, “OK, Erin.” I didn’t think he’d heard what he said, so I told him again when we were wrapping up for the afternoon. The reaction was much more in line with what I expected.

If it’s raining in the morning when we get up for breakfast, we generally don’t go out until it stops raining. For the past couple of days, that’s translated into “we generally don’t go out.” The rain’s been toying with us – yesterday morning, for example, it was cloudy but not raining until we were literally stepping outside of the lab, all DEET-ed and prepared to head out. And then it began to pour. If we get rained out, we do data entry until everyone’s computer runs out of batteries, and we work on things around the lab. Sometimes we watch movies (yesterday, we watched The Proposal AND the Hangover. Very high brow entertainment). We’ve also become compulsive Settlers of Catan players! I’ve only won one game, but it’s a lot of fun! I never thought that trading things for sheep could be quite so entertaining.

We were greeted this morning by the welcome sight of blue sky breaking through the cloud cover. The sun fought its way out for most of the morning – only two hours of rain all day! Keep your fingers crossed for tomorrow. I think I’m going to be permanently pruny when I get out of here!

Friday, February 26, 2010

The obligatory morbid post.

One thing that’s puzzled me about the rainforest is that I have seen very little evidence of death here. I guess that’s not strictly true, as I spend a good portion of my time scrambling over tree falls, decomposing logs, and exclaiming over impressive funguses. But I don’t see a lot of dead animals. In the desert, we stumbled across skeletons of a variety of animals (fossils notwithstanding). I guess that makes sense too, as there are a lot more things here waiting to eat up whatever has died. So leaving that aside, the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t see dead animals a lot.

When Mini and Gideon trapped and identified the group of monkeys I follow frequently now, FC, they also trapped a solitary male named BBO. Back in November, BBO was old. He had a tumor in his prostate and his teeth were very worn down. He’d pop in and out of camp, and disappear for a while, then come back to eat some bananas or anona (another soft fruit). He’s been hanging around here more frequently for the past couple of weeks, more and more dependent on bananas to eat. He looks more and more frazzled, hair sticking out everywhere, stomach expanding from malnourishment. He has pretty bad eyesight, doesn’t seem to be hearing very well, and is moving slowly. We were all wondering how he hadn’t yet been eaten by some bird of prey or other. We haven’t seen BBO for about a week, and it’s been raining very hard for the past week. I suspect that my last memories of BBO will be nearly stepping on him as he unconcernedly eats banana on the wooden planks outside the lab (having bypassed the older banana pieces as not up to par).

Along similar lines, I watched a lizard dying in agony yesterday. Probably one of the ickiest things I’ve ever seen. I may have mentioned bullet ants in passing – big insects, about ¾ of an inch long, with both a stinger AND a pincher. Some person who makes a living deciding these things has said that bullet ants have the most painful stings of the entire insect world. I’ve yet to experience this firsthand (keep your fingers crossed), but they’re probably the only thing in the rainforest that truly terrifies me at this point in time. There are also these teeny tiny anoles that live here – maybe three or four inches long at the most. Yesterday morning, I was stopping and looking over a Mirador – an overlook – when an anole caught my eye. Then I realized that what had attracted my eye to it was the writhing and twitching it was doing. Then I saw that there was a bullet ant with its pinchers embedded in its neck. Karina and I watched, horrified, as the lizard struggled with the ant for several minutes. At one point in time, we lost all shred of scientific objectivity and Karina tried to separate the pair with a stick. It didn’t work, and, slightly nauseated, we watched as the lizard just … stopped. Then several more bullet ants descended. At that, we decided it was time to move on. I don’t know about Karina, but I had dreams about writhing lizards last night. I’m usually okay with watching predator-prey interactions, but usually it’s not quite so protracted. The lion takes a big bite out of the gazelle, the owl flies away with the mouse, the tamarin bites the head off the katydid, and that’s the end.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Well, I’m writing this at quarter of 8 on my half-day off (the internet isn’t on yet, so I’ll probably post it closer to 10). As I said, it’s quarter of 8. I’ve already: Soaked laundry, ate breakfast, washed laundry, hung laundry, entered data, cleaned my computer screen, and sat down to write a blog entry. Now I can add started blog entry to that list, I guess. I mean, it feels like it’s been pretty productive for a so-far-off day, but comparing it to yesterday, it feels pretty measly. We’ve been following a group for the past two days that lives pretty far out of camp. This means that yesterday morning, in order to get to their sleeping site by 5:30, we left camp at 4:30. Which meant that in order to leave camp at 4:30, I was awake at 3:30. Hiking out of camp at 4:30 in the morning means that it’s dark for the majority of the hike – in this case, 2 and a half kilometers on the trail, and another 500 meters or so on. The group that we were following was very strange in that there were 14 adults!!!! Most groups we follow have 4 adults – a group of 7 adults sticks out as weird. So this was pretty mind boggling. It took a lot of effort to follow because there was just so much going on. Usually you can focus on one or two animals and be set, but even among the four of us following, you had to keep track of a bunch more animals and they were spread so far apart. It was pretty crazy.

As you’ve probably noticed by this time, the vast majority of my waking hours are spent in the field. However, when I am not in the field, I can generally be found in one of three places: the lab, the Commodore, or my cabin. Whatever the field lacks in comfort (and, to be honest, while the rainforest can be described as many things, comfortable isn’t one of them), these three places make up for in some way.

All of the project materials live in the lab: dry boxes full of computers, tables covered in binoculars and Rite in the Rain notebooks, trapping material, batteries, chargers, bananas, and (perhaps most importantly) the chocolate stash. This is where I’m writing from this morning – it has big wooden tables set up with benches and stools around. It gets electricity and sometimes internet during parts of the day. It’s in the same building as all the other labs (on the ground floor), a few more offices and the library (on the second floor). The library is a pretty big bookshelf with an eclectic mix of books – everything from Don Quijote and Amor en la Tiempo de Cholera, to a Short History of Everything and Lord of the Rings, to trashy romances, to Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus! I’ve finished Things Fall Apart and You Shall Know Our Velocity – I’m in the middle of Lake Woebegon Boy. The lab itself is a big concrete building with concrete walls. The second floor is made entirely of wood, with a thatched roof. The windows are all screened in to both let in air and keep out mosquitoes. This has the sort of strange consequence of leaving no reflective surfaces at the station. If it weren’t for my computer screen and the occasional photograph, I’d have no idea what I look like. Checking my hair in the reflection of my computer screen as it turns itself on has become a ritual on the same lines as looking at myself in windows before I go in a building.

The Commodore acts as the station’s living room, dining room, study, and kitchen. A building about the same size as the lab, it has three long tables with benches where we eat dinner (and breakfast and lunch on the rare occasion that I eat at the station – usually we eat breakfast early in the morning while getting ready to head out, and lunch is packed for us to eat out in the field). The filtered water, oatmeal fixings, and cookies to take to the field are in the Commodore, and the kitchen and pantry are rooms separated off the back end. There are also several big futon-like couches, two kitchen table-sized tables, a number of games, and a guitar. At night, I usually write and do data entry in the Commodore – the internet is a little quicker from in there, and the electricity turns on at 6:00 so I can charge my computer. Kat is great on guitar, so there’s frequently music coming from there (there was a period of time where Kat, Sarah, and I were learning Helplessly Hoping in three-part harmony. Probably to everyone else’s relief, that’s petered out – it does mean that we’re not sitting and singing the same repetitive song slightly discordantly).

My cabin is about a 5-10 minute walk from the lab and the Commodore, down the beginning of one of the trails. I pass the wooden dorms (built to house a WWF project, now used for researchers and visitors), the entrance to Premier Mirador and Carratera (two more trails), the football field, and five other cabins plus the bathroom and shower before I get to my cabin. It’s about 20 meters off the main trail and sits in a little clearing beneath a big Green Berry Tree. I’ve seen a big coral snake coming down the trail, as well as a number of bats and lizards. Last night I saw a giant toad (reminiscent of the toad in Pan’s Labyrinth!) whose eyes glowed purple in the light of my headlamp.

My cabin itself is about 4 feet off the ground. I have a small front porch perfect for brushing my teeth off of, and a clothesline strung up along one side under the eaves to hang underwear and socks from to dry. In my cabin, I have my bed and mosquito net, two wardrobes (the cabin originally had two people in it, so I’ve got double everything, though the second bed was put up against the wall and now I have a little more room), and two bedside tables. The wall is solid wood about 3 and a half feet up, and then screened until the roofline. The roof is thatched and makes a lovely home for all my geckos and lizards, the occasional stickbug, and the even more occasional bat. My Kindle and Spanish-English dictionary live in their own ziplock bags on my bed, where I read every night for about a half hour before crashing off to sleep!

Friday, February 12, 2010


When I pictured my future life in the rainforest, I would see HUGE trees towering above me. Dark browns covered by mossy greens, water percolating down from gigantic leaves and dripping quietly on my bandana-covered hair. Quiet rustling of wet leaf litter as we walk through, brushing past epiphytes with riotously colored flowers, insects, birds, and frogs to find tiny monkeys sitting in a pile and grooming eachother. It would always be darker and cooler in the forest, though certainly humid and moist beneath the trees.

So sometimes that's correct - for instance, it is almost always humid and darker beneath the trees. And there are definitely insects! What I wasn't picturing - and what is, it turns out, an integral part of this particular rainforest - was the bamboo.

The forest here is situated on a floodplain, which means that it undergoes natural disturbance pretty frequently - the river will overflow its banks, or meander into a different direction. Sometimes a big tree falls over and brings down all the other trees in its path. When this happens, the first thing to grow up is bamboo. So a lot of the time, what the monkeys are doing is jumping from isolated tree to isolated tree in a sea of bamboo. And what this means for those of us following said monkeys is swimming through this sea of bamboo in vain attempts to make it to those isolated trees before the monkeys have headed to another one!

I can see what you're thinking. "Bamboo? What's wrong with bamboo?" Well, I've learned that bamboo has a number of really terrible qualities. It doesn't have the tree cover that the rest of the forest does, which really does make a substantial difference in temperature. It's also frequently a haven for fire and bullet ants. The big bamboo stands are usually considerably taller than I am and don't really want to be pushed through - fortunately, we've developed a specific technique for fighting our way through. Our Bamboo Tramping Technique involves me lifting my forearms in front of my face and basically falling forward. By continuously falling forward, you flatten enough bamboo out to create a path. It can be pretty resilient, so you have to work up a good head of steam before you can move through with any speed (and it also likes to spring back up behind you). We've been going at the same general routes for long enough that there's a really respectable trail out there in the middle of the bamboo that the monkeys traverse most frequently, but on those occasions that the monkeys change it up, it's time to tramp through more bamboo!

The other exciting discovery I've made about bamboo is that it frequently has thorns. Big, thick thorns. Sometimes, when the thorns grow long enough, they form thorn-branches which in turn grow thorns! The thorns on thorns are still sharp and uncomfortable. They're really good at catching on shirts, or bandanas, or hair, or hands.

However, the upshot of all of this is that I have gained a newfound respect for Panda Bears. And for that, I am greatful?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Meet the cast!

But first - the exciting news! Since I last posted, I've been accepted to Ohio State University and to Stony Brook University's anthropology departments! As the other folks in the field with me can verify, I've been sort of obsessing about whether or not I'd get into grad school (and was pretty firmly convinced that I wouldn't), so this has been a really wonderful couple of days! The excitement of hearing positively from Stony Brook definitely eclipsed the two hours of stress and anxiety from getting lost yesterday, and the 714 stairs I climbed up (plus the 714 stairs I climbed down)! I'm still waiting to hear from University of Texas: San Antonio, and Harvard - but Stony Brook and Ohio State are probably my top two choices. Now it comes down to who's willing to give me the nicest incentives to come be a student at their school. And then I get to be a real live graduate student!

I realized that I've mentioned a lot of monkey things sort of off-hand, so I figured today would be a good night to introduce the monkeys I meet up with on a regular basis. You should look their pictures up on google images or something. They're all highly attractive monkeys.

The first I'll mention is Callimico, or Goeldi's Monkeys. Perhaps listing these guys is cheating a little bit, since I haven't actually seen them yet, but other members of our team have, and one of my ultimate goals for this trip is to run into a Goeldi's Monkey! They're tiny, rare, and aren't actually supposed to range through this part of Peru. However, they absolutely do. There have been a number of independent sitings around the research station and along a variety of trails, always in groups of three. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Next is Alouatta, Howler monkeys. Again, cheating because I haven't seen them here, but I've absolutely heard them! Howler monkeys were hunted out of the area pretty well before the establishment of the field station, but are moving back into the trail system. A few people on the field team have seen them, but you can hear them most mornings. It's sort of a terrifying dull roar sound - an exciting combination of the wind and whatever you imagine jaguars sound like at 5:30 in the morning. Once I realized that they were howler monkeys and not approaching carnivores, I was much happier. They have an extended hyoid bone in their throat which allows their calls to resonate and get really loud. I usually hear them in the mornings, and then about 20 minutes before it's going to rain. This morning, they were howling back whenever boats would roar upriver - challenging their roaring abilities, I guess. You can hear their calls on Youtube or something, but it doesn't compare to the feeling of sitting in the middle of the rainforest, watching a raincloud roll in, and hearing this sound far off in the distance... I hope I see them before I leave. I did befriend a baby howler monkey at a restaurant we ate at in Puerto Maldonado, but he was bought off of the pet trade and really shouldn't have been on his own. Consequently, howlers strike me as a little mournful.

Third, we have Aotus, owl monkeys! I never expected to become as well acquainted with owl monkeys as I have so far - our rescued baby (who's doing quite well) is an owl monkey. Owl monkeys are the only nocturnal monkey in South America, and I hear them foraging around my cabin all night. Sometimes we see owl monkeys burning whatever the nocturnal equivalent of the midnight oil would be when we're waiting for our monkeys to wake up at 5:15 or so. They're really attractive monkeys - huge eyes, lovely yellow stripes on their head. And they have very resilient babies.

Fourth and fifth are Cebus, capuchins and Saimiri, squirrel monkeys. These two guys forage together pretty much all the time in gigantic groups, and really sort of terrify me. They're both ridiculously smart monkeys, with higher brain to body weight ratios than humans. Capuchins have a similar social structure to chimpanzees and are also the big tool users of non-human primates. That being said, they're sort of like some sort of organized crime unit. I feel like squirrel monkeys provide the cute and cuddly front and capuchins get the job done. They're incredibly destructive foragers - you can hear them coming from 5 or 10 minutes away. Capuchins throw things at you from the canopy - leaves, food, branches, small trees, rocks, etc. My cabin is under a really big tree that was just fruiting, and there were capuchins and squirrels waiting for me every night between field work and showering - I had to make mad dashes across the path avoiding branches being catapulted at my head. I don't like them very much. It turns out our monkeys don't really like them very much either. Once we were following them, and they bumped into a group of capuchins on their way across a clearing. Rather than keep on going, they circled around and spent an hour going out of their way to come out on the other side of the clearing after the capuchins had gone.

Sixth is Pithecia, saki monkeys. These guys are pretty few and far between, but they're really funny. These sakis are relatively large, grey, fluffy animals. They remind me of old women wearing wigs and fur coats, or grumpy old men. They're very hostile to people coming underneath them, though fortunately they just try to intimidate you by growling from above rather than resorting to outright violence. They also shake their fur around while displaying. I think they're much less dignified than they think they are! I did a project on these guys at the St. Louis Zoo, so it’s been a lot of fun seeing them in the wild.

The seventh is Ateles, spider monkeys. I've only seen these guys a few times, but they always leave me breathless, overwhelmed, and (depending on how much sleep I've gotten), a little teary-eyed. They're just such majestic looking monkeys. These are the monkeys best able to navigate the canopy here, as far as I can tell. They have prehensile tails, extended fingers and toes, a reduced thumb, and extremely flexible limbs, which means that they're fantastic at swinging through trees, jumping, brachiating, catching themselves, and hanging from things. They're quite a bit larger than any other monkey here, and are generally the first to go if there's a lot of hunting in the area. The fact that we've seen any at all is really encouraging as far as the health of this forest is concerned - but we've seen a number of groups. There are at least two solitary animals. I've also seen a group of 5, and (the best!) a group of 7 adults and 1 baby still riding on its mother's stomach. They probably weigh about 50 times as much as my monkeys (maybe more?) - I can't begin to describe how cool it is when a spider monkey suddenly crashes through the middle of the sky above you. I feel like spider monkeys are sort of the ninjas of the primate community here. They're here and gone so quickly, but you know that something incredible just happened!

The previous monkeys are definitely more rare for us to see than the following three. Emperor Tamarins, Titi monkeys, and (of course), Saddleback Tamarins, are our big stars.

Titi monkeys, Callicebus, are big, sort of brownish/tan monkeys. They're considerably larger than the tamarins, but somehow I manage to mistake their tails for tails from our marked group of saddlebacks on a pretty regular basis. To give you an idea of size differential, the smallest, youngest, most infant titi I've ever seen was bigger than the adult saddlebacks! Titis generally live in pair-bonds and travel around with one or maybe two offspring (a juvenile and an infant). Basically, the distinguishing characteristic of titis is that they duet call throughout the day. A lot of pair-bonded primates do this - they duet call in the mornings to reaffirm their territory, emphasize their social bonds, feel out where the other pairs in the area are, stuff like that. The thing is, Titi monkeys have this terrible, LOUD, raucous call that doesn't seem to only come in the mornings. Pretty much any time of the day, the titis will suddenly go off! They sort of wind up with a few low calls and then work themselves into a froth and hoot and squawk and ... it's pretty impossible to write down, but once I get somewhere with fast internet, I have a video to upload for you.

Despite their obnoxious calls throughout the day, I really like titis. Probably the thing I remembered most about them was that when the pair are sitting together, sometimes they twine their tails together - kind of looks like they're holding hands, although it is with tails. But I REALLY wanted to see this! Once a few weeks ago, I was caught in a rainstorm and was sharing a bushy (and thus sort of dry) tree with a pair of titis and their baby - and sure enough, they were all holding tails! So that was awesome. Physically, for some reason I can't quite explain, titis remind me of Mr. Snuffleupagus. So I like them for that reason. They're also just sort of awkward and overzealous and louder than they should be going through the forest, and I definitely identify with those characteristics. Additionally, they're big busybodies and always come to watch when there are confrontations, or if we're trying to call groups using playbacks of baby saddleback monkeys calling in distress, or if there's a fight. Once, I saw an unidentified saddleback trying to join (we think) the marked group. They chased him away and there were lots of squabbles and some squawking and a general fuss was made. A pair of titis came over to watch, and got so into it that they started hooting and calling along with this. Eventually, the excitement was just too much, and the titis both started peeing! I almost died laughing - it was just too perfect.

Our next most frequent monkeys are emperor tamarins, or emps as they are semi-affectionately known. Emperor tamarins are in the genus Saguinus just like our saddlebacks. Tamarins are cool for a number of reasons, but one is that though they probably didn't diverge from eachother that far back evolutionarily, they all look completely different! Like the monkeys I want to study, guenons, tamarins are pretty widespread and fill fairly similar niches to eachother, but they have wildly diverging facial hair and coloration. You may have seen cotton-topped tamarins at zoos - they're the black and white ones who look like they have Einstein hair. Golden lion tamarins are another common zoo species, and they're gold with big lion-like manes. Emperor tamarins are really beautiful little monkeys. They're grey in front with golden brown tails. Their distinguishing characteristic, however, is their face. They have black patches around their eyes that make them look sort of like Zorro-esque bandits, but that's not all! They also have these HUGE ridiculous moustaches! They look sort of like a cross between President Taft's moustache and a walrus's moustache. I'm not sure which emperor they were named after, exactly, but he must have had a sweet moustache.

Emps forage really close to the saddlebacks pretty frequently, and it's usually the same groups around the same areas. You'd think they'd be used to us following the monkeys by now, but they get really excited every time. Some monkeys run away and stay much higher than normal when there are unfamiliar things like people following them and speaking into voice recorders and carrying beeping radio telemeters... other monkeys get as close as possible and squeak and stare and try to figure out what the heck is going on and jump around in the most risky way possible to attract more attention and generally act as huge distractions. Emps take the second path. They are the most curious monkeys! They're a lot of fun to have around because the saddlebacks generally ignore us, or at least don't include us in their day to day activities. Emps, on the other hand - I've been peed on, almost jumped on top of, squeaked at, inspected, and generally mistrusted on a daily basis. Their biggest drawback is their call - they sound sort of like lonely and sad puppies who aren't allowed in. Or very young kittens. They whine. And whine and whine! I always feel like I'm being disapproved of when they're around, but I like them a lot.

Finally - the monkey you've all been waiting for! Saddleback tamarins! Saguinus fuscicolis, our monkeys are occasionally called Fuscis (fussies), but more frequently around the camp, folks call them pichicos (which makes me a pichicero, but that's beside the point). Saddlebacks are sadly nondescript. They are the bland tamarins - no funny facial hair and they're pretty unremarkably colored. Black with reddish-brownish-greyish "saddles" on their backs. Our marked group, FC, all wear necklaces with beads to distinguish them. They also have their tails partially dyed so that you can identify them when you can't see their heads. GBR is the only male in the group right now, which is weird because generally tamarins are polyandrous, meaning there are multiple males and one breeding female in a group. GBR, or Green Black Red, is sort of on a power trip right now. He's been relatively abusive to the females in the group, chasing and biting on a pretty regular basis, but he's a really wonderful dad (you know... spousal abuse aside). The twins are moving on their own a lot, but when they need to be carried over a decent distance, he's generally the one who carries them.

GPG is another monkey who frequently does twin-carrying duties. Green Pink Green is probably not the twin's mother, but she often carries the twins. My suspicion is that she got tired of being hit and chased by GBR and so she uses the twins as a buffer. It's paid off for her, as we've seen some mating between GPG and GBR. GPG seems sort of prissy, as far as monkeys go. She's very delicate and trills a lot, and doesn't really like going into the traps even when everyone else does! The other female in the group is RC - she's the one with the Radio Collar. RC, we believe, is the twins' mother. We think we've seen nursing, and she certainly carries the twins the least (part of why tamarins are polyandrous is so that they have lots of people to carry the babies so the mother doesn't have to). She has a very distinctive call that she makes, sort of a trill and a cheep all at the same time, and I can always tell that RC is around because I can hear it even if I can't see her. She's probably the biggest of the tamarins, and really loves foraging for bugs behind and in big dead leaves. Today I saw her chowing down on a bug that was probably about a third of her length! It was really impressive.

The twins right now don't have names or genders, they're just Twin 1 and Twin 2. They look a lot like ewoks and move a lot like baby sea turtles. They've just recently started moving on their own the majority of the time, and the adults haven't really figured out that they need someone to keep an eye on the twins. When they were less mobile, the adults would stash the pair of them in a big, brambly tree where no predators could see them, and they'd go off and forage without the encumbrance of two wiggly babies attached to someone's back. They're still stashing the twins now, but the twins only stay stashed for a few minutes before they get bored or curious or lonely or freaked out ... and then they dash out on their own! They have an uncanny ability to go in the direction of the adult monkeys, but they're still not great at climbing and especially poor at making big leaps. I can't tell you how many times I've been doing my focals (we record everything that the twins are doing on a voice recorder) and said something like "Twin 2 is active, independent, alone on a branch AAAAAAAAAAAH!" because they just make these spectacular falls from 30 or 40 feet up right to the ground. There doesn't seem to be any lasting damage - they generally scramble right back up the nearest trunk and fall off in another half hour or so.

So that's a pretty quick rundown of all my monkeys. It still blows my mind that often by 6:00 AM I've seen 4 or 5 species! I also owe everyone an apology - I know this blog isn't updated as often as would be ideal. The internet here is pretty flaky, though, and frequently I can't get enough umph for the blogging platform to get off the ground and allow me to post things. I'm often too tired to piece together something both coherent and interesting, too. To be honest, my days are pretty routine. A daily log of what I'd be doing would get repetitive pretty quickly, though I promise it's all interesting and fun to be doing! Anyone have anything specific they want to know about?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A day in the life...

The monkey returned from his vet visit today with an almost entirely clean bill of health. He’s been stitched up, had a little portion of his tail amputated, and looks like a real live animal! Thanks to everyone for their concern for Trino’s well-being! He still looks a bit like Gollum, but he’s doing really well. I’ve had a rough couple of days physically. Yesterday I was closing our radio telemeter and got my pinky stuck in it and managed to pierce my fingernail with the corner… so that hurts. This morning I got stung by a wasp before we even saw the monkeys, I fell into a whole, and I got a minimum of 8 fire ant stings. I still haven’t been eaten by a jaguar, stampeded by peccaries, knocked off of an embankment, or caught in a tree fall, though – so there’s something to look forward to.

So I’m all settled in at CICRA. As of tomorrow, I will have been here for three whole weeks. Time enough for me to have established a basic daily routine, which, since it’s in the Amazon, is perhaps exciting enough to merit a blog post.

My day begins at 4:00, when my first (of three) alarm goes off. Depending on my mood, I either spring out of bed to get dressed, or I doze until my second alarm at 4:15 and my third at 4:30. I’ve been getting up between 4 and 4:15 so I have enough time to get dressed and eat something sort of substantial before heading out. By 4:30, I’ve walked down to the Commodore (the dining room) and am getting myself a nice helping of an oatmeal concoction affectionately known as monkey poo – raw oats, powdered milk, sugar, cocoa powder, and some hot water. Our lunches are in Tupperware waiting for us in the giant refrigerator, so we grab those, a spoon, and a few packs of cookies and saltines. For the first two weeks, the cookies were these orange squares that said, “Galletas con sabor de naranja” (orange flavored cookies). I don’t think I’ll ever be able to taste anything artificially orange flavored again without thinking of the Amazon. More recently, we’ve had chocolate flavored galletas, and also vanilla and strawberry wafers.

Generally, I’m back in the lab getting ready to head out between 4:45 and 5. I need to collect things like the GPS, the data book, a compass, flagging tape, the radio telemeter, and the dry bag. Plus apply DEET. We usually leave for the field between 5 and 5:15 so we can get to the tree the monkeys fell asleep in the night before. If we don’t know exactly where they went to sleep, we can use the radio telemeter to trace them because one member of the group has been radio collared. Generally, though, they wake up sometime between 5:30 and 6, and as soon as we see them pop out of their sleeping tree, we begin recording data. We take scans of behavior of all members of the group every 10 minutes, and there is a constant focal being recorded about the twins – what they’re doing, who they’re interacting with, who’s carrying them, things like that. Plus we record some additional data on specific things like mating, fights, and scent marking.

Following the monkeys generally consists of short bursts of stressful running after them or pushing through bamboo, followed by longer periods of sitting in the same place while they forage or rest. Recently, they’ve been spending ridiculously long amounts of time in brambles where they are entirely out of sight. Then they take 20 minutes or so to travel to a different bramble, eat a little on the way, and then spend another hour or two out of sight. Between 8 or 9, I usually am hungry and need a little more energy, so eat a pack of crackers. Lunchtime comes around 11 between scans, or sometimes we take 15 minutes apart from the monkeys to eat with all our attention. We usually get rice and either the previous night’s dinner, or lentils. The time between about 11 and 1 is when I personally have the hardest time keeping on top of things. It gets really warm and sunny, and I’ve just eaten a big meal, and kind of just want to take a nap. Plus we’ve been awake and working for 6 or 7 hours, and have another 5 or 6 to go … that’s a long period. I usually end up eating another pack of cookies around 12:30 in a vain attempt to become energetic again. The afternoon continues much the same way until about 3:30, when they make a mad rush to a feeding tree, and then an even madder rush to their sleeping site. They’re generally asleep between 4:30 and 5 – the latest I’ve seen so far was 5:30, the earliest just before 3.

After they go to sleep, we hang out a little while longer to make sure they’re actually going to bed and not just foraging some more, and then head back to camp. The first order of business is to shower – get rid of the day’s dirt, fire ant stings, and sweat. I generally do data entry and some internet things between when I get back and dinner (at 6:30). After dinner, it’s more internet and transcribing focals. I try to get back to my cabin between 8 and 9, and then read a chapter or two on my Kindle. I just finished Little Women and Things Fall Apart – my current books are Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Anne of Green Gables. And then … I go to sleep, to the sounds of night monkeys and insects and birds and bats and wind and the rainforest!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Of Owl Monkeys, Lobos, Washouts, and Pumas (or Jaguars?)

The baby owl monkey has lived long enough that he's been dubbed "Trino," Spanish for trill. Conveniently, if he turns out to be female, he (or she, I guess), can convert to Trina. I did have Trino for the night last night. My roommate took care of him from 8-12, I took care of him from 12-4. Consequently, we both got about 4 hours of sleep last night, because it's hard to sleep deeply with a wiggly, delicate, hungry baby in your bed. He's physically doing a lot better - he's mobile, his big cut on his side is looking less like his intestines are about to pop through and more like it's skin without fur on it. His knee isn't skinned anymore, and he's pretty perky. He does still bear an unmistakable resemblance to Gollum, though... He's also eating a lot - I fed him a lot of food (still going with powdered milk, warm water, and something honey-like) every hour to hour and a half last night. He's also excreting everything the way he should. Owl monkey pee in my bed ... oh boy! Fortunately, I bought two sets of sheets. He slept in a pouch on my stomach for a little while, but after about an hour, climbed up to my head and nestled in my hair where he spent the rest of the night with interruptions for feedings when he woke me up nursing on my earrings.

The owl monkey wasn't my only excitement yesterday! Karina and I went out on a scouting mission yesterday morning in search of new groups of saddleback tamarins while everyone else was out working on perfecting the trapping techniques. Our loop took us down past Cocha Lobo, a big oxbow lake in the conservation concession. Like most rivers, the Los Amigos River is a meandering river that changes course pretty frequently due to erosion and deposition of sediments. Sometimes it shifts its course to the extent that a whole section of the river is cut off from the river's flow and becomes an oxbow lake. It turns out that Cocha Lobo has a family of river otters (perhaps now more properly called lake otters) living in it, but you usually have to take a boat out to the middle of the lake to see them. Karina and I started walking down the bank towards the dock with the boat in it (the boat was full of water due to the recent rain, and the dock was almost entirely under water!) when we heard a splash! We ran down the rest of the way and there were four otters swimming around right in front of us! We watched them cavorting and displaying for almost a half hour before heading on out.

Now, it turns out that there are a number of oxbow lakes in the vicinity of Cocha Lobo, including Cocha Seca - the dry lake. Apparently this is a misnomer and not only is Cocha Seca wet, it filled to literally overflowing with the recent rain and tore back its old path into the Los Amigos River. So we were walking along this gorgeous trail (they maintain a really fantastic network of trails here that we get to use sometimes when we're not crashing around off trail following small, speedy monkeys) right along the river bank, and all of a sudden it stopped being there. Instead there was a big tree fall and a river between us and the next step on the trail, a good 10 meters away. So after evaluating the situation and deciding we needed to keep going, we scrambled down the bank and got to river level. Of course, the actual river level was essentially quicksand, and I almost lost my boots to the mud several times. Fortunately, the deposition of sand from when Cocha Seca became a river again also involved the deposition of a number of trees and branches, and the bank that had suddenly been torn apart had a number of roots hanging out of it. The two of us, now weighed down by our mud-encrusted boots, balanced precariously on these logs and clutched the roots as we made our way to where Cocha Seca now joined the Los Amigos River. The only way to cross from one bank to the other was a mostly submerged log spanning the distance - suddenly the years of gymnastics all seemed worthwhile! I made it across and helped Karina get across, and then we scaled the other side of equally muddy, sheer bank. I mean, to be fair it was maybe only 10 feet from top to bottom, but it was HARD! Once I have access to a connection quick enough to load pictures, I'll post them. It was a well-documented trek.

Our journey continued, and though we didn't see any other particularly exciting wildlife, we did cross a bunch of other logs across creeks. The most exciting bit was that for a while, we were following big cat prints! I took a picture of them (again, wait for May or so for pictures) and they are awaiting analysis to tell whether they were pumas or jaguars. We think that there's a jaguar who's been through the area close to our cabin a few times - based on my small litterbox cleaning experiences, I'm pretty sure I saw big cat poop on the trail, and camera traps in the vicinity have seen both jaguars and pumas walking around at night. We don't walk alone when it's dark, though, and we're pretty shockingly loud for a cat used to sneaking up on what he's eating, so no one is particularly seriously scared... just a little jumpy!

OK, well, I've got an hour or so before dinner. I'm very sleepy and can't decide if that time would be best used napping, playing volley ball, or transcribing some focal follows of the twins. We've seen some really interesting stuff in the past couple of days in our group. When I got here, they had three resident males, two resident females, and two infants of unknown sex. Before I even got out to see the group, one of the males disappeared - he probably died in a rainstorm as he'd been seen injured the day before. We had our last sighting of the second male four days ago - he's presumed to have transferred to another group as he seems to be about the right age to transfer. The two females were holding strong, but when I was following the other day, the only male left was really agitated, scent marking and chasing and biting and snapping at the youngest female. It seems like he's bound and determined to have it be him, the older female, and the twins. We don't know if the two of them can take care of the twins well enough for them to survive - all of our fingers are very crossed. There's also been an unmarked group wandering around their territory and causing a ruckus. It's been a dramatic couple of days, that's for sure!

Monday, January 18, 2010

I *did* see a tapir!

Well, I had an exciting and fun filled blog entry planned – news like “I saw a tapir,” “we’ve almost trapped another group,” and “On my day off, I watched capuchins mating and a lounging spider monkey and slept until 5:30” and so on and so forth, but it disappeared last night in a fit of absolute craziness.

Today was our first day of following independently – Karina, Kat, and I went off on our own to follow FC. In preparation for this, Mini called a lab meeting and we all sat down to discuss her expectations for us. Suddenly Emeterio and Marcos walked in with some small squeaky thing on Emeterio’s hand. “Está un mono!” Emeterio said – it’s a monkey! Our initial thought was that it was one of the twins, but then Mini realized it was an owl monkey infant. Owl monkeys are really cool – they’re the only nocturnal South American monkey. They’re really lovely, and we hear them foraging outside of our cabin all night.

This guy, however – not so lovely. Apparently Emeterio had found it squeaking on the trail that runs past our cabin, and brought him up for Mini to do something with. He had a big chunk of skin missing from his stomach, a broken and scraped up knee, a tail broken in three places, and perhaps a ruptured trachea. He also had a bad cut on the top of his thigh, right under his tail. We originally thought he was bleeding from the rectum, so this was certainly an improvement – but then it turned out the cut had maggots in it. Mini, Gideon, and Kat were performing most of the medical things – I was holding my headlamp for them as the power was about to go out. Then we discovered that the maggots were attracted to the light. They pulled 8 or 9 maggots out of the poor little guy. They splinted up his tail, put some steri-strip on his stomach with antibiotics, injected some local anesthetic into his side, and got him wrapped up in warm blankets. It turns out he needs to have his tail amputated, and he’ll probably never end up with a fully functioning knee. However, there’s an animal rescue/rehab facility in Puerto Maldonado, or he may stay at CICRA. Of course, this is in the event that he survives. We’ve been feeding him warm milk with sugar syrup every two hours and he’s drinking it. I took care of him for a portion of this afternoon and he burrowed into my hair until I got him back in his towel where he was burrowed. I hope he makes it!

OK. I’ve had a long and exhausting day of following monkeys through bamboo and vines and such, and tomorrow we’re being observed by Mini and Gideon as we follow monkeys through bamboo and vines. Should be interesting …