Field Fiasco Friday: It’s Raining Monkeys!

During her time as a graduate student, Dr. Suzanne Austin took a tropical field course at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Her goal was to work with other evolutionary biology and ecology graduate students to learn all about the tropical fauna and hone her ornithological (bird science) skills, like mist-netting, morphometrics, and banding. She planned on comparing growth rates in temperate birds in high latitudes to those in tropical climates for her thesis, and this trip would help familiarize her with the field site in Panama.

On one occasion, Suzanne and her colleagues set up their nets to catch some birds. Mist netting, a common ornithological technique, involves stringing fine nets from poles or trees at particular angles. Unable to see the nets, birds will fly right in, but get their legs, wings, and feathers stuck in the fine fibers. Mist netting requires researchers to watch their nets closely, and to carefully extract birds from the strands to reduce their stress after being caught. The team had set up their nets under the canopy, observing the diverse flora and fauna while they waited to ensnare a bird or two.

Soon, monkeys – capuchins, to be exact – appeared in the trees above them! Also research subjects, one of the baby monkeys had a collar, presumably to track its movements and vital signs as it grew up in the rainforest. “Awww!” commented one of her colleagues. “Look at that baby with the collar!” The wonderment at the monkeys didn’t last long though. It began to sprinkle, as it is wont to do in the rainforest. However, it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t typical rain. In fact, the researchers began to suspect that it might be coming directly from the monkeys above…

One of Suzanne’s colleagues was not convinced. “It’s just water,” he insisted, licking it off his arm to prove it. Unwilling to take such a risk, Suzanne and the rest of the team ran for cover, and just in time. As they did so, monkey droppings began to fall from above. They’d been the target of a primate poo party! This was a lesson the researchers wouldn’t soon forget. It turned out that they had set up their nets near the local latrine, and Suzanne was able to get back to her bird work without any dropping distractions after moving their nets to an adjacent site. But, if you’re ever involved in tropical field work, just remember: in the canopy, rain may not always be what you expect it to be…

Now, Dr. Austin is an NSF post-doctoral scholar in Dr. Rebecca Calisi’s lab group here at UC Davis, adding a mechanism element to her evolutionary ecology research. She is currently studying the neurogenomics of parental care.

Photo credit for main picture: Wikimedia Commons

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