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?