Wildtracks: Conservation, Research and Education

Wildtracks blog

Back into the wild...adventures of a researcher (shared by Ruth)


Hi everybody,

My name is Ruth Linton, and I’m a Masters student at the University of Leeds in England. I’m doing an MSc in Biodiversity & Conservation, and I’m at Wildtracks doing the fieldwork for my summer research project. It involves looking at how the distribution/density of food resources affects the territory development of rescued and rehabilitated black howler monkeys newly released into Fireburn Reserve. Howler monkeys are both frugivorous and folivorous, meaning they eat both fruit and leaves (sometimes within the same tree, as seen with figs). My project involves tracking the monkeys and taking GPS locations of where they move and at which places they feed, then using this information to lay vegetation transects along these areas of activity. I’ll then be able to see if there are any differences between the density and/or distribution of food resources inside and outside the initial territory the howlers have developed. Whatever conclusions I come to will be able to help Wildtracks decide on where they will site the release site within Fireburn Reserve next year.

In the first half of my project, my visits to Fireburn were for gathering data as I tracked the howlers. A typical tracking day at Fireburn involves leaving the field base at 6am, in order to be with the monkeys by around 6.30am, when they wake, and start moving a few hundred metres around the area they slept in the previous night. We follow the monkeys all day until 5.30pm, at which time they’re starting to settle down, finding a tree to sleep in for the night. If you want to be a good tracker, you need to be able to multi-task to a certain degree! You have to keep your eyes on the monkeys first and foremost, on where you’re stepping in order to avoid roots, holes in the ground and animals like snakes or spiders, and at times you may also need to use a machete to cut your way through the jungle! Fireburn was hit by a hurricane in August, 2007, when many of the trees were destroyed. Whilst there is now a significant canopy cover again, it’s still in the first phases of regeneration, and the understory canopy layer can be quite dense in places.

Howler monkeys are known for being quite a placid species – as I’ve discovered, their typical day generally consists of lots and lots of sleeping, a bit of eating, and some wandering around! They are quite capable of sleeping for two hours, waking up and wandering maybe 20 m to find some food, then promptly falling back to sleep for another hour! That said, they can still move fairly quickly when they’re in the mood to, so you need to be on your toes when you’re following them! They enjoy using cohune palms for a multitude of activities; they provide a nice shelter for when it’s raining or too hot and they are a good source of water as they collect water in their tops when it’s raining. I also like to think of them as the howler monkeys’ ‘roundabout in the sky’, as they can very easily come in one side and go out a completely different one, so you usually have to station a few people around the palm when they go into one, in order to see where they’re going to go next!

The three monkeys we’re following are Ritchie, Fern and Charlie. Ritchie is the self-proclaimed ‘leader’ of the troupe; she’s usually the first to leave a tree to find better pickings, and both Fern and Charlie will follow her. Fern’s usually the first one to follow Ritchie. While they’re all good climbers, Fern is the most reckless of the three – she doesn’t always check whether a branch can take her weight or not, and she’s been the case of quite a few scary moments when she breaks a branch and falls several feet! She’s never hurt herself though, and she always scampers back up to the treetops straight away. Charlie’s a good climber (he follows the climber’s rule of three points of attachment at all times!), but he is quite cautious and slow, so he often gets left behind by the two girls. He always catches up, but by then the other two are usually moving on.

Fireburn is a lovely place to work in, and I’ve really enjoyed watching the monkeys get more and more confident with their climbing abilities and their surroundings as the release progresses. It’s wonderful to watch them hanging upside down by their tail that they use like a 5th limb, reaching across to the next tree to grab a big clump of heartvine or a juicy fig. They’re perfectly adapted to their surroundings and it’s great to watch them moving through the treetops. Every so often, we’ll also catch glimpses of a troupe Wildtracks released last year, which are doing really well. Sometimes we hear them howling in the distance, and occasionally Ritchie will reply back – Fern and Charlie haven’t howled yet in Fireburn, but I’m sure they will in time. It’s quite a special feeling, being in the deep rainforest and hearing howler monkeys howling, back where they belong. As a conservationist, the continuing decline of animal populations and habitats (unfortunately, mostly human-induced) can be quite disheartening at times, but it’s great to see rehabilitation programs which are putting animals back into the wild, helping to halt or delay the downwards trend in populations that we’re sadly seeing across the world.

At the moment, I’m back in Wildtracks after a period of fieldwork out at Fireburn tracking the monkeys, and will return tomorrow to start laying out my vegetation transects, with the help of local ‘jungle experts’, who are able to assist me with identification of food trees, and ensure I can move safely within the jungle. My project ends in about two weeks, after which I’ll fly back to the UK and write up my project. Wildtracks has a good year-long post-release monitoring program, where the monkeys are followed nearly every day for 3 months, and then at longer intervals throughout the subsequent 7 months, to ensure the monkeys are doing well in their new home. I’ll look forward to reading the updates on the website about them from the UK, although it won’t quite be the same as being there myself, watching it ‘live’, so to speak! I also wish Wildtracks all the best in their rehabilitation programs for the multitude of other animals they have at their rehabilitation centre in Sarteneja.


Published by: Zoe Walker at 2013-07-26 16:32:19   [Link to this article]

Check out the latest articles in the blog!