Field Fiasco: Gibbon Tease

When working in Sabah, Malaysia, I encountered some of the most frustrating primates I’ve ever worked with. That’s really saying something, considering that I now work with the very mischievous Rhesus macaques. To this day I still remember this frustrating group of gibbons, which I called the “office group.”

During my 2015 field season, I was lucky enough to stay at Deramakot Forest Reverse, a government sponsored forest center in the middle of protected jungle. My field station was quite luxurious, as the researcher lodge—capable of housing 10+ people—was completely empty except for just the two of us Americans. Every morning, we’d roll out of bed at 4:30 to the sound of singing gibbons. We estimated there were around eight groups within 1 kilometer of the field station (the typical distance gibbon vocalizations carry). As a researcher, there isn’t anything more exciting than waking up to the sound of raw data.

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An agile gibbon, belting out a melodious duet. [Source]
As the gibbon chorus began each morning, myself and UC Davis alumni Dr. Dena Clink would trudge down the hill towards the main office, microphone in hand. Each morning, we would stop at the office and attempt to record the “office group”. We’d slowly and quietly approach the trees in which we could hear the singing gibbons. We’d get close enough so that the microphone could pick up their vocalizations. And, like clockwork, the office group would stop singing just before we could record them.

We tried using playbacks, playing a pre-recorded duet vocalization in an attempt to elicit a response, but the office group would not sing in return, no matter the time of day. We tried recording them first thing in the morning and late in the morning. We even tried to record them when they sang spontaneously in the afternoon one day (a rare time of day for gibbons to duet).

Check out an example of a gibbon duet playback:

 

No matter what we tried, we couldn’t record the group that was right outside our door. A month came and went and our stay in Deramakot was over. To this day, I still feel like I was cheated out of data. The lesson here is that no matter how determined the researcher, the reality is that we work with animals whose behavior we may have no control over. It’s always humbling when your study subjects fail to perform, or exhibit behaviors contrary to what you’d typically expect. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: the most difficult study subjects often end up becoming our favorites.

Allison Lau is an incoming graduate student studying monogamous primate duetting and pair-bonding behavior. This field fiasco occurred during her undergraduate field season in Borneo

Featured image: a Bornean gibbon, currently not singing. [Source]

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