[I wrote this a little over a week ago but haven’t been able to post it until now. Sorry for the delay.]
Yesterday I finally arrived at the Tiputini Biodiveristy Station (TBS) in the Amazon forest of Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. Because of plane delays, it took me a full two days of traveling to get to Quito, but the trip into the jungle from there was quite pleasant and relative to the chaos of the previous two days, quite relaxing. From Quito I flew west to the small city of Coca with four others who were visiting TBS for the weekend (the station frequently hosts short-term visitors and groups of students in addition to the researchers who stay for much longer), then traveled by boat for two hours along the Rio Napo. Next was a 90 minute bus ride through a bunch of land owned by an oil company which seems to be quite protective of their land, as the security to get through was about as tight as an airport (plus a guy hanging around with a machine gun) and you’re not allowed to take pictures or use a cell phone when traveling through. The plus side was that the road was in pretty good condition even though there’s been a ton of rain recently, not at all the miserably bumpy and rough South American bus ride that I’ve heard a lot about.
The final leg of the journey was another two hour boat ride along the very pleasant Rio Tiputini, at which point it really started to feel like we were going somewhere pretty remote. The Tiputini is pretty narrow and boating away from the road you could sort of feel the jungle closing in on you. We didn’t see any particularly noteworthy wildlife while on the boat, but there wasn’t any sign of civilization either, and the flora itself is pretty impressive. Everything just seems more intense. The foliage is thicker, the leaves are bigger, the colors are brighter, there are a wider variety of plant species, and riding down the river you could just tell that the place was brimming with life behind the thick walls of vegetation that crept in on the river.
The station itself is really nice. All the buildings are quite nice and the station has running water, electricity (for part of the day), internet (thought its slow), a lab for the researchers, a small library and a collection of huts that can house about fifty people. There is a even a full time staff that lives at the station (they’re called tigres for some reason) and cooks all your meals for you and does laundry. So for living in the jungle its pretty cush.
I haven’t yet gone out into the field and see any monkeys, as today was spent mostly reviewing the behavioral observation protocols and doing some background reading on monogamous primates. I did get a chance to hike to the canopy tower though, which rises a good 150 feet above ground and gives you a pretty good perspective of how much there is to the rainforest that you can’t see from the ground. It was pouring rain when I got up there, so again I wasn’t able to see any wildlife but getting a view from so high up in the rain was pretty cool by itself.
Tomorrow I’ll start getting trained to do the behavioral observations and will get a sense of what its like to follow monkeys around all day. I’m going to be working with Amy Porter, a graduate student from UC-Davis, helping her with a project she is doing researching titi and saki monkeys, both of which are considered monogamous but differ in the degree of attachment seen between the male and female and the amount of parental investment seen by the male. Titi monkeys are rather unique in that they are on of the few primate species in which the fathers invest heavily in raising offspring. Male saki monkeys, on the other hand, show no such behavior yet may be offering other services to females that help reinforce the monkeys’ monogamous status. One of the important questions underlying Amy’s research and the Monogamous Primates Project in general is to what degree social monogamy in humans and other species evolved in order to essentially lessen the load for females during parenting and to what degree it may have evolved as a mate-guarding strategy for males. It seems likely that both explanations play are correct, but possibly to different degrees for different species. By recording species and sex differences in a variety of behaviors such as affiliative behaviors, scent-marking and vocalizations to protect territory, and parenting behaviors, we will be able to get a sense of the factors that help maintain this monogamous social system in two different species of primates.
I am realizing just how much time and energy in the field it takes to even begin to answer these questions, so its not like I’m going to leave here in five weeks with any answers. Tony Di Fiore and Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, the creators of the Monogamous Primates Project and primary investigators of the research examining social monogamy in titis and sakis here at Tiputini (as well as the owl monkeys I’ll be researching in Argentina later this summer) have been working on these questions since 2003. They have already come upon some really interesting findings (of which I’ll probably go into detail more in a later entry), but it has taken years of set-up and hard work habituating, collaring, and tracking the monkeys to do so. Amy work’s is just one part of Tony and Eduardo’s larger project on monogamy, and with the time I have here all I can do is help contribute to a small portion of Amy’s work. But that’s just the nature of scientific research, and with the time I do have here, hopefully I’ll get a better picture of what these primates’ monogamous lives are like. At any rate I’m excited to get out in the field tomorrow and watch some monkeys.