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?


  1. Great writing Erin. I check here several times a day to see if there are any updates. This was worth waiting for.

  2. Thanks for introducing us to all of the critters. What an amazing array of creatures you've already seen, and it's barely been a month. Imagine what's waiting for you.

    Watch out for the branch-tossing Capuchins! You have to teach the squirrel monkeys to yell "heads up!".
    Love you!

  3. Cool stuff - it's really neat to hear how the different monkey species interact. I miss you too!

  4. No worries about the speed of updates. It's nice to read a good, long post about many things. :)

    Also, I thought you would enjoy this. Poor Beaker.