Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pandas are much harder to study than monkeys

"Anybody who has experienced our work knows it is not that glamorous. It is sometimes boring and lonely," Panda researcher Yang Yi

The LA Times has an interesting article on censusing pandas, and what struck me is that while the challenges and frustrations of panda research are similar to my own, the rewards are much fewer and far between.

Yi's statement would apply to most fieldwork. It definitely applied to some parts of mine. However, the work of censusing and studying pandas makes my research look easy, and far more rewarding. When censusing unhabituated animals, you have to look for traces, such as feces, prints, scratches, or nests, depending on the type of animal you are studying. For example, if you are censusing great apes, you look for nests. If you are censusing panda droppings, you look for panda feces. And while fecals are rewarding as both data points and assurances that the pandas are still there, they are not as rewarding as seeing the animal itself. And pandas sightings are rare. I've heard that dedicated panda biologists consider it a highlight to see one in the wild just a few times in their career. Dai Bo, a wildlife biologist quoted in the LA Times articles, has worked in the mountainous Sichuan province for 20 years without seeing a single panda.

This really reminds me how lucky I am to study animals that I could regularly observe, and increases my respect and appreciation for everyone who studies animals who are far more cryptic. I have learned from past field experiences that while I can put up with much of the loneliness, tedium, and frustrations of fieldwork, I need to regularly see the animals I am studying to stay motivated. And while I love the forest, and am fascinated by the research questions I am exploring, for me, the main reward is the joy of getting to know individual personalities, watching infants and juveniles grow, and peering into the daily lives and dramas of the animals I study. While I definitely have stretches in which I can't find the monkeys, or am constantly losing the monkeys as I get stuck in the swamp, I have the lucky moments in which I get to watch and enjoy the monkeys. And every once in a while, I get the opportunity to see other, more elusive animals, such as tayra, sloth, tamandua, jaguarundi, agouti, and tapir.

There are many times that I've wished I had chosen to study terrestrial, easy-to-see primates, such as baboons or macaques. But thinking about the panda census makes me realize how lucky I am to see my spider monkeys as often as I did.

However, for those of us sitting at our computers, it's much easier to see pandas, because the San Diego Zoo, the National Zoo, and Zoo Atlanta all have panda cams. Thus far, I have yet to find a spider monkey cam!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Field Notes on Science and Nature

I absolutely loved most of this book, and wish I had read it before doing my dissertation fieldwork. I HIGHLY recommend it for anyone going off to do fieldwork in the near or distant future, because it makes you think a lot about how you want to organize your data collection, as well as methods for identifying individuals, recording anecdotal information, and preparing for analysis and writing. Besides that, it also shows excerpts from the various researchers own field notes. My favorite chapter was “The Pleasure of Observing” by George Schaller, but I highly recommend at least skimming through all the chapters to see if there’s helpful or relevant information to you. The book contains chapters written by different field researchers in a variety of fields, from entomology to paleontology to biosocial anthropology, and covers a variety of different types of field recording systems… from the old-fashioned 19th century naturalists field journals to the standardized Grinnell system to utilizing sketching in field notes. While many of the authors feel strongly that there is something essential to having an old-fashioned, paper-and-pencil field notebook and lament replacing them with computers and hand-held recording devices, one author, Piotr Nasrecki, has a chapter entitled “Note-taking for Pencilophobes,” describes his experience developing an online database manager to create an entirely digital version of a field notebook.

Reading this has made me reflect a lot on how I record data, and what I do, (and don’t do) with my field notebooks. Back when I was in Cameroon, I kept a field journal that was similar to what I imagined old-fashioned naturalists’ field notebooks were like—a mix of journaling, recording field stories and experiences, and sketching butterflies that I’ve seen. But our data was recorded on separate checksheets, so this field journal was completely separate from data collection. In doing my masters research, I recorded data in checksheets in rite-in-rain notebooks, and then recopied them into another notebook, and then entered them into Excel spreadsheets. Notes and anecdotes were either noted in the notes section of my focal spreadsheets, or written in a Word field I kept for anecdotes and more detailed notes and descriptions. I kept the field notebooks in plastic baggies so that I could refer to them in the future, but that’s meant that they just sat festering in a moldy state in Ziplocs for quite a long time--if you do this, make sure you put some silica in with your notebooks, or they will get DISGUSTING!

For my dissertation data collection, I’ve been given conflicting advice. One of the reviewers of my NSF DDIG proposal seemed shocked that I would collect data in field notebooks (he/she said it was because paper can be eaten by termites, but I suspect he/she just thought it was a completely outdated practice), and advocated using a hand-held digital recorder. However, I think that in a rainforest environment, using technology in the field increases the risks of losing data—there’s always a risk of electronics malfunctioning in the humid environment, and if you drop it in a stream or swamp, there goes expensive equipment AND your data. But since I have dropped my field notebooks in swamps on multiple occasions, I know that you can just wipe the mud off the pages and still be able to see your data and notes. My advisor also did not like the idea of collecting data in field notebooks, and instead though that I should print out checksheets on rite-in-the-rain paper. However, this would require periodically printing in the field, which I didn’t know if it would be a possibility (the field station does now have both electricity and a printer, but the printer was not there at the beginning of my fieldwork, and until we were hooked up to the electrical grid about 10-11 months into my fieldwork, we only had generator power for a few hours in the evening). So instead I decided to stick with checksheets in my field notebook. Initially during my masters research I would spend a lot of time meticulously organizing neat checksheets in my notebooks, this was replaced by a messier, less time consuming version of the checksheet system that worked for me. I continued to stick with this method during my dissertation, because I already had my own system and shorthand down. Recordings for fecal collections also went down into my field notebook, and if there was something of interest I’d usually jot down very quick, abbreviated notes, and then expand on that in the evening when I was entering data.

During my dissertation research I also skipped the step of copying into a separate notebook, and instead went straight into entering data into my excel files. While I like having a separate written record, it’s very time-consuming, and I preferred being able to enter my data more quickly and I would back up my records on an external hard drive. Entering in data the evening it was collected gave me a chance to check over data, and expand on any observations that were only briefly noted in my notebooks. Notes on individual identification and any expanded notes or anecdotes went into word documents.

I also am very diligent about keeping my computer and hard drive safe from the humidity. While I do know of one person’s computer that molded to death at the field station, I suspect it was because she was not taking good care of it. To protect computers and other electronics from constant humidity, you need to run them regularly—the heat generated helps keep them dry. Since I used my computer nearly every evening, it was always in regular use. When not in use, its best to store them in some sort of dry box or bag. There are dry boxes/closets at the field station, but the heat from the lamps obviously only works when there was electricity. Instead, for both my masters and dissertation fieldwork, I kept a large plastic storage container with silica as my drybox, and it seems to have worked out quite well. The silica was wrapped in old socks, which are porous enough to allow the silica to absorb moisture while preventing silica beads from getting in everything.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Interspecific Affiliation

Raymond has recently posted on interspecific grooming, and I have so much to say about this topic that I have to write about it as well—however, I look at interspecific grooming as part of the range of interspecific interactions that can occur. We’re usually not surprised when individuals of different species have agonistic interactions. However, sometimes we are surprised when affiliative interactions occur. This really shouldn’t surprise us—after all, many of us participate in interspecific interactions everyday (I probably spend more time interacting with my cats and dog right now than I spend with other humans).

Aside from my daily interactions with my best feline and canine friends (as well as observing their interactions—one of our cats does groom the dog as well), I’ve seen various types of interspecific interaction, both in captivity and in the wild.

At the Omaha Zoo, I watched a juvenile spider monkey both groom and harass the tapir with which she shared her exhibit. She groomed him, jumped on him, and eventually, in an attempt to get a reaction, reached back and grabbed his nether regions. The tapir ignored her previous actions, but did raise his head and look at her in response to that transgression. When she got a reaction, the spider monkey made a gleeful play face, and I suspect that this may have been a regular occurrence (unfortunately, I was only visiting for one day, but I would have loved to observe there more often to see if that was a regular occurrence).

At Brookfield Zoo, the spider monkeys share their exhibit with capuchins, an anteater, and a tapir. However, they seemed to largely ignore the anteater and the tapir, and would routinely harass the capuchins or redirect aggression toward them.

At Cayo Santiago, the island was teeming with both rhesus monkeys and iguanas. Most of the time, the two species ignored each other, but occasionally interactions occurred. Though they were rare, it indicated that the rhesus monkeys did see the iguanas as social actors. When the iguanas were very active during their mating season, male macaques would sometimes get irritated and chase them away. Once, I sat down on a log, and inadvertently scared an iguana hidden below it. Startled, he immediately ran out, and darted straight into my focal animal. The poor monkey was startled as well, and he indignantly threatened the iguana. However, the funniest macaque-iguana interaction is when a female macaque went up to an iguana and started grooming it. I think a friend of mine may have actually caught that interaction on tape—I would love to see it again.

During my masters research at El Zota in Costa Rica, I observed quite a bit of capuchin-spider monkey interaction. One of my focal animals, Tristan, spent a whopping 78% of his play time with capuchins! Furthermore, my male juveniles received agonism only from capuchins. In Tristan’s case, it may have been because Tristan would indiscriminately approach capuchins of all ages, and adult males capuchins responded agonistically to his solicitations. Another individual, Freddie, was far more afraid of capuchins, and was chased out of a Ficus tree several times by capuchins. I also observed one of my female focal subjects, Iris, attempting to groom a male howler—however, he seemed rather surprised by her attempts, and moved over to rest a meter away from her.

During my dissertation, I observed a few more interspecific interactions. During my pilot project during the summer of 2008, we observed an adult male howler playing with a juvenile male spider monkey, as well as an adult female spider playing with an adult female howler. During the main portion of my dissertation fieldwork, adult female focal Agata fought with, and then was chased by an adult male male. Subadult female Anne groomed an adult male howler for less than a minute before he retreated. Another time, Anne solicited play from an adult female—they played for less than a minute. Juvenile male Judah played with an adult male howler for quite some time—I unfortunately was not able to note the duration of their play encounter, because I was doing focals on Judah’s mother, Jlo, at the time. I also observed adult female Strawberry chased an adult female howler—I wrote in my notes that it was a “slow chase.”

I have also heard reports that someone observed spider monkey-capuchin grooming interactions--I'm very envious, because in all the time I've spent with those spiders, I have not seen it! I've heard there is photographic evidence, but I have yet to see the picture. This summer, an instructor with a primate class also observed a subadult male capuchin mounting a subadult male spider--and got a picture of it (I did see that photo!).

Why do these interspecific interactions occur? Most agonistic encounters can usually be understood in the context of feeding competition. However, interspecific affiliation, particularly grooming and play, are a bit more difficult to understand. I think it indicates that many primate species recognize other primate species, as well as other animals, as social actors. Play among different primate species is more commonly observed, and may just be a consequence of playful juveniles looking to play with whoever will play with them, regardless of species. This might be especially valuable for juvenile spider monkeys—small subgroups can limit their opportunities to play with conspecifics, and adults may be busy feeding, resting, or grooming with other adults. However, play among adults of different species, and interspecific grooming, is another issue. Why would adults invest time in affiliating with another species, when they could be investing in relationships with conspecifics? In species that form interspecific associations, it makes sense to invest in relationships with the other species. For other species, its less clear.

How can we study this phenomenon? Unfortunately, because such interactions tend to be infrequent, we usually just collect anecdotes as we collect data for another project. However, perhaps collaborative effort on examining collections of observations might yield some interesting insights. Also, there are a number of zoos that house multiple species together, and these exhibits probably are the best place to specifically exam these questions. However, just because animals are housed together does not mean that they will affiliate together—the spiders and capuchins at Brookfield Zoo are a good example of that. It may also be valuable to study interspecific affliliation among species that frequently form interspecific associations, as the frequency of interactions would likely be more common.

Have you observed any interesting interspecific interactions, or have any ideas or insights into why it occurs? Please share! And I you have observed interspecific grooming, please let Raymond know as well!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Lorelai Learns to Leap

One of the best things about spending a long time in the field is the chance to see juveniles grow up. Mostly, this applies to my spider monkeys; however, I also had the opportunity to watch a family of whistling ducks grow from little hatchlings to adults. When you’re seeing your study animals regularly, sometimes it’s hard to notice they’re growing, until one day it just hits you that someone suddenly looks so much bigger.

Every so often, though, you get the opportunity to see, in a single day, an event that marks that development. Sometimes it’s a rejected weaning attempt, or an infant tentatively taking a few steps after its mother. In this case, juvenile female Lorelai, learned to take a big flying from one tree to the next, instead of relying on her mother to bridge for her.

When young juveniles learn to travel independently of their mothers, they are quite a bit slower and smaller than their mothers, and have trouble negotiating some of the larger tree gaps that spider monkeys regularly cross. To help them, mothers, as well as other adults, will use their body to form a bridge from one tree to the next. As they grow older, they learn to negotiate those gaps themselves; in some cases, juveniles will ignore the convenient bridge that their mother provided, and go around a different route to make the crossing themselves. However, in this particular case, the reverse happened.

On the grounds of our field station, there were a several wonderful fruiting trees that spider monkeys were sure to use. When those trees were fruiting, we’d get a break from chasing monkeys through forest and swamps, and instead got to watch monkeys right from the station. One of them, a tall scrawny Spondias tree, was a daily favorite for a while last fall, and was nicely located in a position where we could watch it from the gazebo (this was fieldwork at its easiest and most ideal).

One of the most frequent visitors to that tree was adult female Leila (my favorite, and most wonderful, focal subject), and her juvenile daughter Lorelai. Sometimes they would travel there by themselves, other times, with the company of other monkeys (they frequently spent time with another mother-offspring dyad, Jlo and Judah). On this particular day, Leila and Lorelai were by themselves, and after feeding in the Spondias, they continued to travel a route they frequently used. However, at a point that Leila normally would bridge for Lorelai, Leila did not. Instead, when Lorelai traveled to the end of the branch, and then looked expectantly back at Leila, Leila just sat down. And then she waited. Lorelai looked back at her, and then eventually decided to look forward at gap and judge it for herself. She held onto her branch, leaning toward the gap, but then pulled back. Again, she looked to Leila, and Leila stayed sitting. Lorelai then climbed to a different branch, and again proceeding to cautiously lean out, checking the gap. She hesitated for a while, but then she pulled herself into position, and just took one great flying leap, and safely landed on the branches of the next tree (it’s usually fairly easy for spider monkeys to safely land after those leaps, because they essentially have five limbs that can grab onto branches).

And then as soon as she made it, Leila got up, followed her into that tree, and then continued travelling forward. After that, I watched Lorelai go on to confidently cross many large gaps on her own.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Return from Narnia

I am now back from Costa Rica!

My field assistants and I sometimes referred to our field site as Narnia, because when you're there, it seems worlds apart, and time seems to flow differently there. After a few days there, you feel like you've been there an eternity, and you start to wonder if your real life really existed, or if you just dreamed it. But then somehow, though the time seems to be slow and endless there, sometimes time flies by, surprisingly enough, and though I never though it would end, here I am, back in the US.

Anyway, I must apologize for being horrible at updating my blog. I intended to update regularly, but I found that when you have limited access to internet, you finally are online, you spend your time wading through an overwhelming full inbox, catch up with friends when you can, and have no time or motivation for anything else. So even though I've had stories I've wanted to share, I have yet to actually get around to writing them... but hopefully now I will.

By the end of my fieldwork, I was pretty sick and frustrated with it. Studying spider monkeys and collecting their fecal samples is difficult, and they gave me quite a challenge. At various time this year, I've wished that I'd picked something a bit easier to do--such as studying foraging behavior and diet instead of social behavior and endocrinology. Or howler monkeys instead of spiders. Or terrestrial monkeys instead of arboreal monkeys. Or better yet, the free-ranging macaques of Cayo, or even better, captive animals. At other times, I've wished that instead of doing a PhD, I'd gone to vet school, so I would not have to spend over a year of life away from my boyfriend, pets, and the comforts of home to chase after monkeys, fall in swamps, collect poo splattered all over vegetation, and get eaten daily by clouds of mosquitoes.

But luckily, my very last day at the station, I got a little reminder of why I chose fieldwork, and why, sometimes I love it. I went out in the forest in the morning of my last day, but didn't find any monkeys. So I spent the rest of the day finishing up packing, and by late afternoon, I had most of my stuff packed away. And while I was on the porch reading at about 5:30 in the afternoon, I heard some whinnies. So I went to investigate, and there was my favorite monkey, Leila, with her daughter Lorelai, and another female, Mindy. And my first thought was, oh no! Everything is packed away! So instead of doing what I always do (do focals and hope for poo to collect), I just spent about a half hour watching them go about their foraging, and enjoying my last moments with them. And it was such a wonderful time, they came low enough for me to observe them easily without binoculars, and I got to see Lorelai take some big flying leaps (this was impressive because in the fall I watched her work up the nerve to attempt them on her own, and I can't believe how much I've gotten to see her grow up in the past year), and I was able to really enjoy them. When you're busy stressing about getting data, sometimes its harder to appreciate the monkeys, and I'm glad that the those females came by on the last day to remind me how much I love them.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Lagoon wildlife

One of my absolute favorite things about El Zota is the lagoon. It's small, with marshy grasses in the middle, and a gazebo that serves as a great wildlife observation post. It provides views of popular spider monkey feeding trees, so when one of them is fruiting, the gazebo usually is one of the best vantage points. But even when monkeys aren't around, there is plenty of other wildlife to see. . .

This is "Bunny," one of the resident caiman

Can you spot the camouflaged basilisk?

A family of whistling ducklings--only four made it into juvenility and adulthood.

Did you know that jacanas are polyandrous?

The ducklings with their attentive parents