Field Notes: Camera-trapping capuchins in Coiba National Park, Panama

Field Notes is a monthly segment in which we (the students of the Animal Behavior Graduate Group) recount the scientific side of our fieldwork – why we are there, what we do when we get there, and what we learned from our time. Stay tuned each month as we travel the globe studying a variety of species.

Map of Coiba National Park, Panama
Coiba National Park in Panama, including Jicaron Island (Map Credit: STRI)

Last July, before I moved to the United States to begin in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group (ABGG) at UC Davis, I went to Coiba National Park, off the Pacific Cost of Panama. We aimed to find out what camera traps placed in the forest had photographed. This time the crew was formed by Eliezer (our capitan), Chris Dillis (a UC Davis alumnus), Pedro Castillo (a local biology student), Brendan Barrett (fellow ABGG student), and me. We spent eight days there, including seven nights of sleeping in a hammock listening to the sounds of the ocean under a sky crowded by stars. I first visited this park in 2015 as part of a Bioblitz. Working at a rough, remote site can be logistically difficult with many challenges, but the white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus) drove us to the island.

Although I had always seen monkeys while doing field work in other sites of Central America, I have NO research experience with primates. Therefore, for this on-going project, I am working with my UC Davis advisor, Meg Crofoot, and fellow ABGG student, Brendan Barrett, both with vast experience with capuchin monkeys. Yet the monkeys of these islands are completely wild, and the sites are so remote that we need to use camera traps to study them. Camera traps are motion-sensored cameras that are triggered to take photos or videos whenever it detects the movement of passing animals. They can store thousands of photos, allowing us to study wildlife in a non-invasive way.

Coiba National Park
Coiba National Park (PC: Brendan Barrett)

Our camping spot is very basic. Before setting our camp, we have to consider how far will the tide reach, so that our tents don’t get flooded. Also, rainfall in Coiba National Park is around 3,500 mm/year (Almost 11.5 feet!). As soon as we arrive, we first have to set a large tarp to protect ourselves, our food, and our equipment. In terms of food, we do pretty well for breakfast and dinner. For lunch, well, there could be two options: either a tuna sandwich or a peanut butter sandwich. Doing dishes at night though is always fun, because there are are crocodiles in the area. While one person watches out for the neighboring crocodiles, another person hurries to finish the dishes for the night.

Traveling to the site
Since it’s an island, we had to commute to the site by boat (PC: Brendan Barrett).

I can say working with capuchins is pretty funny. One of the first things I learned is that, while working with capuchins, blinking should be avoided as they can vanish very easily in the forest.  Also, I normally study the community of mammals using camera traps, and for that carrying binoculars is completely optional, but mandatory when working with monkeys. We need to see when they defecate and where their poop falls to collect DNA. Using binoculars also helps to start learning to recognize individuals. I also learned that working with capuchins means that you can end anywhere in the forest, so a map or GPS is key if you want to go back to camp.

Every night, before bed, we discuss where we want to install our cameras and search for the monkeys the following day. Where to go to do fieldwork is limited though! Jicaron Island, our main field site, is a 20 square kilometer island (about 7.7 square miles) that reaches 390 meters of elevation within 1.5 km (less than one mile) from the beach, and it’s mostly surrounded by rocks and coral reef. There are only three narrow beaches where we can land and that luckily give us access to two extremes of the island. We take our cameras and install them where we find signals of monkey activity on the ground such as chewed fruits.

It is easy to recognize capuchin’s activity because we know there are not many other mammals on Jicaron Island. Back in 2015, when we did the first ever camera trap assessment in Jicaron Island, we found that there are only four species of mammals, excluding bats, inhabiting this island. Surprisingly, in only 100 days of sampling effort, we obtained 500 capuchin monkey observations while only FIVE observations in one of the other sites where we have been conducting camera trapping assessments for 7 years.

Right now, we are analyzing our data on the natural history and behavior of the white-faced capuchins in Jicaron Island, an isolated and unstudied population. Stay tuned for upcoming results!

Claudio Monteza is a first year Ph.D. student in Animal Behavior, and is interested in the ecological and behavioral syndromes driving terrestrial mammals migration.

Photo credit for main picture: CameraTrapLab

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