I resisted the temptation to put exclamation points at the end of the title for this post after looking through the past couple posts and realizing that I may be abusing this particular punctuation mark. Though the seed of my soul believes this title deserved them, my blog was starting to look like the insane shrieks of a 14-year-old girl at summer camp, so I decided to dial it back. I used no such restraint in the body of this post, however.
So, we collected cameras from our second tree, and it was a rather challenging tree to climb. I actually don’t even know how I got the cameras up there in the first place. For all our efforts in this difficult climb we were rewarded with a pretty amazing experience. When you walk around the forest you can always hear howler monkeys in the general vicinity, but as I made my way into the crown of this particular tree, I found myself surrounded by monkeys on all sides! Throwing the goal of the climb to the wayside momentarily, I whipped out my camera and immediately started snapping photos and recording video…for about 12 seconds. I forgot to change the battery, and my heart sank when I saw the flashing red light of death on the screen. Yet another photography fail on my part. Ever the hero, Owen was able to swiftly pass his camera up to me, so I managed to get capture a bit of the scene. Please ignore the sound of my panting, but I don't know how to cut it out of the video. Plus, I was basically holding a reverse plank while dangling from a rope, so I would argue the panting was, while embarrassing, reasonably excusable.
As I sat in the tree, with howler monkeys all around and some capuchin monkeys a bit further off, I started thinking about what I was seeing. It’s hard to read animals’ expressions, even when they are fixedly staring at you from the neighboring tree. The difference between “What’s this guy doing up here?” and “Get out of the way, I need to get home!” is probably pretty subtle. Monkeys are all over the island, and maybe my presence was confusing enough to attract their attention long enough for me to notice them. But, I couldn’t help thinking that if such a thing as a canopy highway (a path that gets used over and over again by different animals, even different species) does exist, was I sitting right in the middle of it?
The rational, scientific skepticism that has been hammered into my head over the past few years tells me that I am projecting, that this is all just wishful thinking because deep down I hope that canopy highways do exist. Long gone are the days of lengthy, descriptive accounts of what researchers observed and “felt” they were seeing – at least in scientific journals, that is. Testable hypotheses, empirical evidence, and repeatable results are (as they should be) the name of the game these days. I realize that my hopeful speculation clouds some of my ability to scientifically reason in a situation like this, but the urge to explain my surroundings is sometimes stronger than my ability to remain completely objective.
I had nothing to go off of beyond my hunch that I was perched in some sort of ecologically significant location in the trees, and the story the cameras seemed to tell did nothing to contradict these feelings:
OH. MY. GOODNESS. Right?!
Look at everything going on there! I could hardly contain my excitement when we looked through all these photos. Just to break things down, the species you see include the following:
If you’re not familiar, kinkajous are related to raccoons and are reasonably common here, though because they are nocturnal (active at night) and arboreal (live in the trees), they can be hard to spot. They also make horrible pets, as Paris Hilton can attest. These ones seemed to be a little concerned about getting past the camera, but they eventually mustered the courage and jumped over.
Here’s a better photo of this guy from the front. I say “guy” because, well, if you look closely in the video…yeah, it’s a boy. Jackie Willis, the Barro Colorado Island mammal expert, said that people sometimes find them when they are looking in tree hollows and that she’s found their remains in owl pellets! I can’t imagine those quills would feel any better on the way back up as they do on the way down. Apparently they are reasonably common, but rarely seen. If Wikipedia is any judge of things (which I blindly believe it is), there doesn’t seem to be all that much known about them - the page is practically empty!
I know I’ve already gone on about sloths so I won’t get into it too much here, but doesn’t it look massive compared to everything else?! Once again, I never thought I would be startled by a sloth, but his appearance was definitely alarming.
White (and angry)-Faced Capuchin Monkey
This one was clearly not impressed with Big Brother watching over him. His angry crusade against my camera actually ruined the remainder of the deployment, but I feel like it was worth it. For all the people who have asked me whether the monkeys mess with the cameras – yes, they do.
Alright, that's all for now. We're heading out to collect more cameras tomorrow, so hopefully there will be more to share. I don't want to jinx anything, but I'm so happy with our success thus far, I really hope we can keep that going!
Much to my surprise, the first collection day was actually schedule for today, not tomorrow. We grabbed the first three cameras and, as the title indicates, SUCCESS! I’ll cut together an actual video showing the entire process of a climb at some point, but for now, here is what I captured of the first collection. Also, be warned that the camera work might make you a bit queasy. Even though I have a Go-Pro that I should be able to strap to my helmet, I have yet to install it. So, all the climbing shots are from my regular camera, which I held in my mouth.
Here are a few of the photos. I was SO excited to see that we actually got some animals. Also, all three are species I’ve never managed to get on my cameras before! It’s just the first of many, but I’m so glad that I’ve got at least something to show for all our effort so far. The sloth isn't super easy to find, but see if you can spot it!
Had a great first day in the first of many trees. I deployed three cameras about 80 feet up in a Dipteryx tree. Somehow I'd forgotten how much work this is - it took about 3.5 hours from the start of the ascent to the moment I got my feet back on solid ground! Is there a reason no one else is doing this? Hoping for the best with these ones, many more to come!
One of the first questions people ask me here or at home is what exactly I do when I come down to Panama. The answer to that question has been slightly different every year (this is my fourth trip down here), but it has all been leading to this current trip. The basic premise of my research is to study where animals move in the canopy of the rainforest and why. Repeated use of the same pathways has been documented for several monkeys and a few other arboreal (tree-dwelling) animals. I often refer to these pathways as “canopy highways,” which conjures up an image something like this:
In reality, it’s still unclear whether it is individual branches that are used over and over again, certain trees that align into a path, or just general areas of forest that are easier to move through than others. In order to investigate this question I started thinking about what is required for an animal to move through the forest canopy. The answer is actually pretty simple – in order to get from one place to the next without touching the ground, you need some sort of above-ground structure. By mapping the three-dimensional structure of the forest in relation to routes that animals have already moved, I thought it might be possible to characterize the type of forest structure that is most suitable for use as a canopy highway. For this, I turned to several of very generous collaborators, who provided data on the movement patterns of three different monkey species (howler, capuchin, and spider; pictured below).
Another collaborator also provided three-dimensional forest structure data collected by airborne LiDAR (basically the laser version of RADAR). The video below shows a visualization of these data.
After a whole lot of reading, thinking, troubleshooting, coding, pleading for help from my labmates, reading, fighting back tears of rage, I finally produced a few models that mapped areas most likely to be used for movement based on forest structure that look something (though not exactly) like this:
In this image the low, medium, and high probabilities of use are represented by green, yellow, and red, respectively.
Now I essentially have a map that I think shows where animals are least likely to go and where they are most likely to go based on the structure of the forest. This in itself is a feat that at one time I never thought possible – I’ve never had much of a knack for programming and had to learn how to use all kinds of new software, but alas, it happened! The goal for this trip is to test how well the model works in real life, a step that is often not taken in the ecological modeling world. I am setting up cameras in areas of predicted high, medium, and low use and to see whether my predictions actually line up with reality. It might work, it might fail miserably, but at this point I’m just excited to have the opportunity to try it out. It has been a long haul so far and there is certainly a lot of work ahead of me (I’m hoping to install cameras in 20-40 trees in 10 weeks!), but I’m excited to keep you all updated as the project progresses.
I’ve spent most of my days so far walking through the forest looking for trees to use (the Prospecting Phase, as I called it in my proposal). I’m planning to start climbing and installing cameras early next week. Wish me luck, I’ll keep you all posted!