Thursday, October 15, 2009

Camera trapped!

Story about me in National Geographic Adventure

Photograph by Christian Ziegler

Through the canal!

When you live on Barro Colorado Island, the Panama Canal is a big part of your every day existence. You commute to and from the office through the canal. You work in the canal. You swim in the canal after hot days, and party on a raft in the canal at night.

There are also a number of canal-related activities that you do repeatedly with your visitors like visiting the canal museum and having dinner at the restaurant that overlooks the locks. I've even been down into an emptied out lock while it was under maintenance, crawled back into the tunnels that feed water into the locks, and turned the handle to open a lock and let a ship through. However, until last week, I'd never actually gone through the canal!

Friends from Maine who are sailing to New Zealand invited me to join them on their canal transit as a line handler. Every boat going through the locks is required to have a captain and four line handlers, and they were one person short!

I actually had just gotten back from a week-long workshop in Santa Barbara, but on Monday morning, I got up early and took the bus to Colon. Nothing quite like sitting on an over air conditioned bus for two with an incredibly violent movie about Central American gang members killing one another being played at full blast. I met Gram, Jo, Bill and Zach at Shelter Bay Marina, which is near the old Fort Sherman base.

When I'd seen sail boats transiting the canal in the past, I'd always wondered why people who can afford a sail boat couldn't afford decent bumpers. What was up with all those tires?!?!? Turns out they are the official gear given to you by the Canal Authority (ACP) to use while going through the locks. Guess I shouldn't have been so snotty.
We had to wait a while before our pilot arrived and we could start towards the locks:

Gram, being the responsible individual that he is, worked to get the boat ready while

the rest of us relaxed and looked around at the boats waiting to go through the canal

the containers that have been offloaded and are waiting to go across the isthmus by train

and the impressive lightening storm, followed by gorgeous rainbow!

Then, it was off to the locks when our captain and our lock-mate:

Once we got to the locks, guys threw us ropes which we used to position the boat in the lock so it didn't move around when the water started to rise. Then, up we went. No photos of any of this, as we all had our hands full. I thought it would all seems a little scarier and out of control than it actually did. Up we went, through the three different locks, and out into Lake Gatun, where we had to anchor for the night, on the sketchiest mooring ever:

Gram did some fancy foot work and Bill did some impressive maneuvering to get us tied up to this thing in the pitch dark!

Gram and slept on hammocks up on deck (no mosquitoes!) which was great until the howler monkeys went off at 4:30 a.m. The morning was not very promising:

but it eventually cleared up enough to get to enjoy a bit of Lake Gatun!

Panama is expanding the canal, building a new, larger set of locks big enough for the new post-Panamax ships, and straightening the canal to make it easier to navigate, so there is a lot of construction going on.

This peninsula will soon be gone. . .

This used to be de Lesseps Island. A couple of howler and spider monkeys were stranded out here earlier this year, sitting miserably in a the one remaining tree.

This was the last boat we passed before we got to the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks and out into the Pacific

Welcome to the Pacific!

and good luck on your sail to New Zealand!

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I bought a car! It's red! Yup, that's pretty much it!

Saladino is dead!

Capuchins live a really long time--up to 40 years--so it isn't all that often that an adult in one of the groups that I study dies. In fact, of the 12 animals that I collared for my dissertation, all are still alive 5 years later. However, in a continuation of my bad luck with darting and radio-collars, the photo above is all that is left of Saladino, one of the males we collared in January. We could tell on Thursday afternoon that he had stopped moving, and so knew that either his collar had fallen off or he had died. Thursday is the end of our work week, and by the time we got back to BCI on Sunday morning, this is all that was left of him.

I was pretty impressed by how quickly the jungle did its thing, but I recently learned that it isn't at all abnormal for a dead animal to be nothing but bones in a matter of hours. But a few days ago, I came across a dead howler monkey hanging in a tree, looking like it had just fallen asleep. Three of the female capuchin monkeys were alarm calling at it, and then started poking it and pulling its tail. Eventually, they moved off, but when my friend Robert went back the next morning because he wanted the skull, there was nothing left but bones. Doesn't take long. . .

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Can you find the fer de lance?

Here's  the photo of the fer de lance that was outside the dorms yesterday.  A beautiful snake!

Monday, April 13, 2009

An unwelcome guest

This morning brought more excitement than I'm generally interested in before my coffee.  It came in the form of a 1 meter fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper) sunning himself (herself?) outside my room. Fer-de-lance are highly venomous and have the reputation for being quite aggressive.  Take a look here if you want nightmares:  
I'd only ever seen one, very small one on BCI before today, which I'm generally quite thankful for. I have to say that it was beautiful (hopefully I'll have tracked down some photos of it by tomorrow--I didn't have my camera nearby).  However, it posed an interesting conundrum:  what do you do with a very dangerous animal that is hanging out in an area where people in flip-flops and bare legs are walking at all times of day?  Most places in Panama, you'd just kill it, but that seems somewhat inappropriate in a nature reserve. .  .  So, do you behead the fer-de-lance on your front steps? or try to move it, and put the unlucky person who draws the short straw at risk as they try to move it?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter egg hunt!

The tinamous are nesting on BCI, which means there are large, aquamarine eggs hidden throughout the forest tempting the capuchins.  Eggs are high quality food, and all the monkeys are spending a lot of time staring at the ground or following adult tinamous around, hoping to find a nest.  A couple of days ago, three females cooperated to chase a male tinamou off his nest and steal his eggs.  The birds nest on the ground at the bases of trees, so Claudia climbed down the tree and scared the male off his nest, and while Mimi and Betty kept him distracted, she stole all his eggs.  After all their help, you might think that Claudia would share her booty.  Actually, she did, but not with either of the females who helped her out.  Instead, she and Cheverul sat side by side on a palm frond, happily dipping their hands into the opened egg and licking the yolk and whites off their fingers.  

The capuchins aren't the only ones who like tinamou eggs, either!

All the activity we've seen in the last few weeks surrounding these eggs (and especially the food sharing we've observed), got me excited about an art and crafts project and I went on an epic search for easter eggs dyeing kits and white eggs.  Surprisingly, given that the easter bunny doesn't visit Panama, it was easier to come up with the kits than the white eggs.  I have been to every grocery store and every market in the city, and discovered that only brown eggs are sold in Panama.  Everyone seems to remember a time when you could find white eggs, but not any more.  Luckily, it turns out that using the blue dye tablet and brown eggs more or less turns a chicken egg into a reasonably convicing fake tinamou egg.  

I've spent the last three weeks teaching the Princeton semester in Panama class on tropical vertebrate biology, and we used these eggs to create fake tinamou nests.  We wanted to know how close monkeys had to come to see the eggs, and look at the role that dominance and social relationships played in determining who actually got to eat them once they were found.  It was quite funny, actually, as soon as a capuchin saw the 'nest', they immediately started scanning the trees around them to see if any of their group mates were visible, and only then, moving very slowly and quietly did they start moving down to the ground to pick up the eggs.  If one of the adult males saw a female or juvenile moving towards a nest, he'd immediately rush over and take all the eggs, so stealth was key!

Alfredo, taking the eggs that Oldemar found.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Meet Las Moneras!

Anyuri, Me, Nena and Lucia

I feel incredibly lucky to have found the most amazing monkey chasers!  Anyuri, Nena and Lucia started working with me in early January, and after only a week on the job, which was primarily focused on learning to navigate the trail system on Barro Colorado Island and to tell the difference between adult male, adult female and juvenile capuchin monkeys, were promptly tested with a trial-by-fire: Darting!  

Bob came down to Panama again, probably against his better judgment, to help me put radio-collars on the capuchins.  

The batteries in all the radio-collars I used for my dissertation research have died and so, to track the movements of my study groups using the automated telemetry system on BCI, I had to replace the collars.  Catching monkeys is tricky and tiring at the best of times, but this round of darting easily outstripped all its predecessors in terms of difficulty.  Dipteryx, tall canopy trees, had started to fruit, but weren't producing large fruit crops so the monkeys were very hungry and spent all day running from the top of one tall tree to the next. For safety reasons, we can't try to capture the animals when they are high up, or when they are moving, and thus we spent  seven days running up and down hills covered in liana tangles after monkey groups, desperately hoping to be in the right place when a capuchin decided to pause for a few seconds.  We got lucky five times, averaging out to approximately 15 miles hiked per monkey captured.  

How many blondes does it take to collar a monkey?

Because capturing capuchins is so labor intensive, we tried out two new break-away collars that are designed to fall off by themselves (hopefully AFTER the batteries die), so we don't have to recapture the animals to remove their collars.  As you can see, it's a pretty low-tech solution--just a weak point built into the tubular nylon collar material that should eventually rot and fall off.  

Several higher-tech break away collars have been designed which allow  you to program the collar to fall off after a specified number of days, or to trigger them to fall off remotely using radio-signals.  Unfortunately, for the moment, all these mechanisms are too heavy to use with animals as small as the capuchins.  So, we crossed our fingers and (although we knew better), hoped that the capuchins wouldn't pull the collars off the second they woke up. . .and as it turned out, it took the first monkey almost a whole 6 hours to get his collar off (please note, that is half the time it took us to catch him)!  On the other hand, the other monkey with a break-away collar (Ulpiano) was either weaker, lazier or got a better constructed version, because he is still wearing his, almost three months later.

Rose and I putting a collar on Saladino (named after the first Panamanian Olympic gold medalist)

   George and Rose weighing Loretta.

We had a frustrating week of darting. I'd been hoping to get new radio-collars on monkeys in my original six study groups and, perhaps, if we were lucky, add an extra group or two. Field work requires flexiblity though, and by the second day it was clear that these goals needed to be adjusted.  In the end, we captured 5 monkeys from three social groups, and felt like we'd succeeded. I get to work with amazing people:  even after 7 exhausting, frustrating and somewhat disappointing days they still smile (and speak to me).  

L to R:  Bob, Nena, Oldemar, Anyuri, George, Carrie, and Lucia

(Actually, they were smiling because I'd just promised them we could go home to rum and cokes!)

(I'm smiling because I finally get to take the heavy backpack off!)