Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Everyone Loves a Cute Monkey Picture.

Today is my last day in Santa Cruz.  These past three months of monkey-watching have been time well spent, and I'm definitely going to miss my little titi family.  The next ten days are full of Bolivian travel adventures with my fellow research assistants, and then it's back home to Texas!  A big thanks to everyone who actually read my blog...thanks for making me feel like I have internet friends.  Don't worry, my adventures in ecology (real life and blog life) will continue.  Maybe not with monkeys, but there will always be more adventures.  Grad school awaits, and after that...well, only God knows where I'll end up.  I've got an entire planet to explore.  Mother Nature's perpetual student.  

So I leave you with some adorable snapshots of my precious primates.  Enjoy.

Male (Daniel) with infant and Juvenile (Esperanzo)

Daniel resting low in a tree.

Precious little baby monkey.

Female (Carmen) in her favorite Cecropia

Infant exploring the branches on his/her own.

Subadult (Jasy) taking a break after foraging.

(L to R) Juvenile, Female - nursing, and Male

Juvenile (Esperanzo)

FUN SCIENCE FACT #23:  The most dangerous animal in Africa is the hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius).  Apart from snakes and insects, the hippo kills more people per year than any other.  Large size and a bad temper, plus a strong set of jaws and some intimidating to just stay out of their way.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Get a Poop, Lose the Group

As a collector of behavioral data, you’re faced with a choice.  Do you snag that fecal sample and risk losing your monkey family, or do you pass on the poo this one time, purely to forestall the toilsome task of relocating said monkeys?  It’s a tough call.  Even if you opt for the feces, just this once, there’s always a possibility that you won’t be able to find it amongst the leaf litter…. then you’re out one fecal sample AND one group of Callicebus.  But then again, if you forego this particular #2, who’s to say there will be another opportunity?  Monkeys are not predictable poopers.  Really you could argue it either way.

This field season, my group has been characterized by their private pooping practices.  Gathering feces from these monkeys has been an arduous chore.  If I have the pleasure of watching them relieve themselves, it is 9-times-out-of-10 completely inaccessible (i.e. at the base of a tree completely surrounded by vines, on the other side of the fence, etc.).  As of last Friday morning, I had a total of four fecal samples.  Everyone else?  Oh yeah, like fifteen.  I had FOUR…that’s just depressing.  So on Friday, when my male did his business right above a wide open trail, leaving that tiny brown nugget in plain sight, I seized upon the opportunity to expand my collection.  Not five minutes later, my subadult followed suit.  I grabbed that one too.  No hesitation here.  I don’t care if I lose those monkeys anymore…I just want that poo!  Needless to say, I was thrilled.  It’s taken weeks to collect four samples, and now two in one day?!  It was a glorious moment. 

GN's subadult, Jasy

The day didn’t stop there.  A few hours pass, then both my male and female leave perfect little pellets in very attainable locations.  PRAISE JESUS!  I doubled my pre-Friday fecal samples!  Friday might have been my best field day yet.  FECES FOR THE WIN.

Female, Carmen, in her favorite Cecropia

So what’s the answer to the all-important poop v. group debate?  There isn’t one.  It’s completely situational…but given my current, relatively poopless, situation, I’d say poop is going to prevail these last few days.  

FUN SCIENCE FACT#22:  Lake Baikal in Russia is the deepest lake in the world, measuring 1620 m deep (at its deepest point).  It is also the world's oldest lake, estimated to be around 25 million years old. At over 636 km long and 80 km wide, this freshwater lake holds over 20% of all the fresh water in the world.  Definitely in the top 5 of my travel bucket list.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Monkey See, Monkey Do.

One of the cutest things a titi monkey will do is eat a mango.  Watching those furry little primates nibble away at such an ill-proportioned snack (big fruit/small monkey) can turn even the frowniest frown upside down.  So, of course, my stubborn monkeys had yet to choose that particular fruit as one of their mid-morning or late afternoon meals…..that is, until last week.  It was a Wednesday, it was 8:30 am, and I was hungry.  I reach into my bag and pull out a freshly ripened mango.  Clearly it’s mango season here in Santa Cruz.  Mangos are everywhere.  Mangos in the grocery store, mangos on the street corners, mangos in our backyard.  You can’t get mangos like this (and by that, I mean you can’t get mangos at these prices) back in the States, and I am taking full advantage of this mango crop.  Anyways, so I eat a mango in the field.  Right in front of my monkeys.  I watched them eat their not-so-tasty Sapotaceae fruits, and they watched me eat my mango.  Monkey heads were cocked, but all in all nothing too out of the ordinary, behaviorally speaking.

That was Wednesday.  What happens Thursday morning?  Those silly titis went straight to the neighborhood mango tree and feasted on fruits for about thirty minutes.  Now, I’m not going to take all the credit for pointing them in the direction of this new-found favorite treat, but it does seem eerily similar to a “monkey see/monkey do” type situation.  Like Wednesday they all got together and said, “Hey look there, she’s eating one of those fruits from that tree we never go to...maybe we should check it out.”  You’re welcome, titi monkeys. 

Resting after a mango feast

Whether or not it had anything to do with my mango-eating habits, I’m just excited it finally did happen.  I’VE BEEN WAITING THREE MONTHS FOR THIS.  Absolutely precious.  Monkeys and mangos…it doesn’t get much more adorable than that.  

FUN SCIENCE FACT #21:  The first turkey was domesticated in Mexico/Central Amerca.  Yes, I realize that fact leans more toward the fun than the science, but today is you get a Thanksgiving fact.  Also you get my "what I am thankful for" list: family, friends, titi monkeys, mangos, and silpanchos (an American's Bolivian version of a Thanksgiving feast.  Hey, we work with what we've got here).  

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My Fractured Female

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about my life in the primate world.  November has proven to be quite a busy month…it started out with a relaxing trip to the Amazon, but I came back to whirlwind two weeks of reassessing my entire life and working towards a new grad school goal.  Lots of emails were sent, lots of purpose statements were written, lots of sleep was lost.  But everything worked itself out…or at least, I think it will eventually work itself out.  It always/usually does. 

There is much to discuss.  So I'll start with my female.  About three and a half weeks ago, amid the “prodigal son” theatrics (that is, the return of GN’s subadult), my female injured her front left foot.  It could have happened during any of the altercations, but I believe it most likely occurred when the female/subadult scuffle caused the both of them to fall out of the tree and on to the ground.  Since this incident, I have noticed many changes in my female’s personality, as well as the group dynamic.

GN's beautiful female, Carmen

Pre-injury, my female was clearly the leader of her pack.  She was the one guiding the rest of the group to new resting trees or foraging trees...always squeaking, hinting for her family to hurry up and join her.  Now GN has no real leader. Sometimes it’s the male, other times it’s the subadult (who has been with the group everyday since he returned), even the little juvenile led GN this past week.  The female however, now hangs towards the back, struggling to keep up.

Holding up her injured foot.

She is completely unable to use her front left foot.  She lifts it up and carries it close to her chest when she walks, not letting it touch the branch.  She doesn’t use it to feed, nor does she use it to groom herself or the others.  I was thinking that eventually she would regain her four-legged locomotion, but it seems that this handicap might become permanent.  Slowly, but surely, her speed and agility is increasing; she is adjusting to life without one foot.  It obviously impairs her everyday activities, but not to the point that she has stopped eating or stopped nursing.  Sill eating? Still nursing?  Yeah, I think she’ll be just fine.  It is slightly heartbreaking to watch my female hobble through the canopy, but she is a fiery, tenacious little monkey, and I have a feeling this won’t hold her back for long.  

Cuddling with her man (L to R: Juvenile, Female, Male)

FUN SCIENCE FACT #20: The largest frog in the world is the Goliath Frog (Conraua goliath) of West Africa.  It can grow as long as 33 cm (13 inches) and weigh as much as 3 kg (8 lbs).  

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

So Easy, A Caiman Could Do It

This past weekend, I had the amazing opportunity to sneak away from the real world and head to the Amazon with my fellow titi monkey researcher/roommate, Anna.  Let me tell you right up front that it was one of the best experiences of my life.

We left Santa Cruz late on Wednesday night.  It was hot.  And we were leaving Santa Cruz on a non-air conditioned semi-sleeper bus full of other hot and sweaty people.  Trust me when I say it's not comfortable...for your body or for your nose.  But it was cheap (like $10 cheap) and it was getting us where we needed to go.  Plus we were so so excited that I don't think we cared HOW we got there as long as we DID get there.  Nine-ish hours later - around 6:30 am - we arrived in Trinidad, a small city in the Beni region of Bolivia.  Located at the southern edge of the Amazon basin, Trinidad is the city of motorcycles.  Everyone rides motorcycles.  Sometimes five at a time.  No one wears helmets.  Trinidad is also very hot and very humid.  We realized this very quickly...pretty much right when we stepped off the bus.  At this point, we had two hours to kill before we could meet up with our tour group and officially start our Amazonian adventure.  There were three initial goals: pee, find the plaza (the center of every Bolivian city), and find some food.  Our first goal was accomplished relatively quickly, although we did have to spare a few bolivianos (Bolivian moneys) for the use of some very sub-par facilities.  But after all night on a bus with no was worth it.  Our second goal was also quickly accomplished, thanks to our map, our resourcefulness, and our "oh let's just follow that other gringo" method.  That method never fails.  It was then, in the plaza, that we met up with one of Trinidad's adorable plaza sloths.  There are actually a few Bradypus variegatus that inhabit this plaza, most at the tops of the trees away from view.  Lucky for us, this one was at perfect picture-taking height...even though we could have easily paid a small Bolivian child B$5 (about US$0.70) to climb a tree and fetch it for us.  But I'm more a fan of just letting the sloths be sloths.

Mama sloth and her precious baby.
Seriously close to that sloth.

Goal #3 was slightly more difficult.  One, because Trinidad isn't exactly known for it's top notch cuisine.  Two, because nothing is open at 6:30 am.  No worries though, we found a room full of bread vendors.

Here's the honest truth: I could go into lot and lots of details about every single minute of every day, but nobody would read that.  Solely based on the fact that it would be novel-length.  Except maybe my mom...she would read it.  So I'll give you my brief, yet thorough, Amazon play-by-play.

Day 1 (continued):  We met up with some new German friends.  For some reason, I've met lots of Germans in Bolivia.  They all seem to vacation here.  So these two German girls, in addition to a very adorable Ecuadorian man, a very stylish man from Luxembourg, and a hilarious Belgian woman, would join us for the next few days on our river boat cruise.  It was an odd, yet somehow perfect, mix of people.

Germans in a boat.

Made our way to our "posh" riverboat.  It was big....and comfy.  Especially compared to the leaky cave I occupied during my Galapagos tour last summer.

Our first adventure was a trip to a local fishing community.  Life there (and in the region, in general) is very different.  Girls are married at 12 or 13 and usually have about two kids before they're 15.  Life is simple.  They live under blue tarps and attend school under a mango tree.

Adventure #2:  FIND SOME RIVER DOLPHINS!  I love river dolphins and it was so incredible to see them in the wild.  So glad I got some pictures (these were NOT easy pictures to get)!  The Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), also known as the bufeo, boutu, or pink dolphin, differs from a grey dolphin in color and in its lack of dorsal fin.  It instead has a slight hump on its back.  These cetaceans are also able to turn their heads 180 degrees, due to their unfused cervical vertebrae.

Plus I got to see some capybaras!  My favorite rodents.  Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris is the largest rodent in the world...closely related to the agouti and the guinea pig.  These semi-aquatic, coprophagic "water pigs" live mostly along riverbanks and feed on a select few grasses and aquatic plants.  Also they're really cute.

That was all Day 1.

Day 2:  We started the morning with a 4 hour jungle hike (Adventure #3).  I love hikes and I love jungles, so it was perfect.  Lots of cool trees.  Lots of cool flowers.  We were hoping for a sloth or an anteater, but unfortunately neither were spotted.  Thus is nature, though.  You never really know what you'll find along the way.

Hey I like trees there's nothing wrong with that.

Adventure #4: Piranha fishing!  Obviously if you visit the Amazon you have to fish for some piranhas.  And how do you catch a piranha??  With huge chunks of raw meat.

 Anna and I were unsuccessful for a long time.  Smart little fishes kept eating our bait.

Anna with her empty hook... :(

But I finally caught one!  Happiest moment of my life.  I really wanted to hold it by the gills (ya know, for that awesome "look at my piranha" facebook profile picture).  Our guide was hesitant.  I wanted to reassure him that I totally had that situation under control, but I didn't know how to say, "Don't worry, I'm a trained ichthyologist" in Spanish.

Eventually a successful day!

Day 3:  Jungle hike?  Check.  So what's next?  Jungle horseback riding (Adventure #5).  Now I've only ever been horseback riding once in my entire life.  And that was like 10 years ago.  I honestly had no idea what I was doing....but I caught on pretty quick.  A lot of walking, a little trotting, a little running and I was hooked. So. Much. Fun.

Friends on horses.

Adventure #6:  Remember yesterday's piranhas?  Oh yeah we totally ate those for lunch.  Looks delicious, no?

Piranha soup.

Adventure #7:  The best adventure yet...searching for caimans.  Caimans are relatively small crocodilians, one of the two subfamilies in the family Alligatoridae (the other being alligators).  Caiman-hunting is a nighttime escapade, involving just a few people, a small boat, and a flashlight.  Shine the flashlight at the bank -> look for red eyes -> get closer and try to snatch a caiman.  That's pretty much how it goes.  At first, we were least with the caimans.  We did catch a funny little bird though. He kept making all sorts of strange noises, but he was pretty cute.

And then finally a caiman!  Just what I wanted!!  This "little" guy was only about 6 months old.  I thought he was precious.  By this time out guide had figured out that Anna and I were ecologists, so he let us thoroughly examine our specimen. And by that I mean he let us play with it tail and it's feet and pet it as much as we wanted.  I love those tiny caiman feet.

Right after I got my caiman picture (still nestled close to both the caiman and our Bolivian guide), there was a minor slip of the tail.  Caught off guard, our guide let go of the caiman's back end, causing the tail to whack me right in the face.  RIGHT IN THE FACE.  I GOT HIT IN THE FACE WITH A CAIMAN TAIL.  The front end of our crocodilian was then released from it's grip, and we had a caiman on the loose in a very small boat.  The Germans in the back seat weren't too happy about it.  I thought it was hilarious.  And very entertaining.  Nothing like an untethered, sharp-toothed reptile to get your blood pumping!

Day 4:  A rather lazy morning, when compared to our other days.  Adventure #8 was a leisurely boat ride down a smaller tributary; our eyes peeled for any kind of wildlife.  Plenty of water fowl, a few turtles, and of course some monkeys.

Adventure #9:  After docking, we encountered an elderly local woman and her pet capuchin, Martin.  Martin was rescued as an infant when his mother was killed - that's great.  What's not great is keeping a monkey chained to a tree all day with no toys or other stimulation.  MONKEYS ARE NOT PETS.  Nonetheless, Martin and I had a nice photo shoot.

We then made a quick walk through the jungle to a small lagoon.  Canoe trip included.  Found some great treasures along the way: snail shell, caiman mandible, caiman skull, huge fish skeleton.

Then it was back to the boat and back to Trinidad.  A minor time crunch to make it to our flota (flota = long distance bus), but Anna, our two German friends, and myself all boarded the bus for Santa Cruz around 7:30 pm.  Thank God we were able to snag a full-out sleeper bus for the ride home.  Bigger seats, comfier seats, plus a nice big window for a perfect breeze.

Beautiful Amazon sunset.

I've said it once and I'll say it again: best four days of my life.

FUN SCIENCE FACT #19: The brain of a river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) is 40% larger than a human brain.