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.