Field Notes: Research in the time of COVID-19

COVID19 has been a tough pill to swallow for everyone, from teachers, to parents, to everyday employees. The global pandemic has caused unprecedented impacts not only on the workforce and economy, but everyday life as well. Academic research has both suffered and flourished in new and surprising ways under the heel of COVID19. Last month, as we were all adapting to stay-at-home orders, we highlighted some of our animal behavior researchers’ pandemic version of “the field.” For this month’s field notes, we are checking in with them to find out just how the pandemic has impacted their research for worse, or for better.

Allison Lau: “Keeping fluffy collaborators healthy”

I study non-human primates as a model for understanding the behaviors that make animals live in pairs and form bonds. I am currently working on a few projects with titi monkeys, characterizing their vocal communication and asking the monkeys how their vocal communication reinforces their relationship quality. I work both in the field (South America) and with captive primates at UC Davis. Combining both wild, naturalistic observations with captive experiments allows me to characterize naturalistic behavior and ask questions about its importance when we alter the social environment in captivity. COVID-19 has slightly derailed my research because all experiments are currently paused in order to maintain the health of our monkeys.

This spring and summer, I planned to conduct a playback experiment. Our coppery titi monkeys are monogamous and form pair bonds with each other. This study asks our female coppery titi monkeys (Plecturocebus cupreus) that are either unpaired (awaiting a mate) or already paired how they perceive the vocalizations of other monkeys that are already paired or seeking a mate (unpaired). I aimed to tackle important hypotheses about mate choice and territoriality but this study requires a lot of personnel in order to set up the playback experiment and collect data. Titi monkeys are at risk for zoonotic diseases (diseases that can travel from humans to animals and vice versa), so we are taking extra precautions to limit our monkeys’ chances of contracting COVID-19. The only way that they will contract COVID-19 is by coming into contact with an ill human. Due to the long asymptomatic period associated with COVID-19, it can be hard to know for sure whether or not staff have contracted COVID-19. As such, the easiest way to keep our monkeys healthy is by delaying testing and reducing the number of people in the monkey areas. Our top priority is keeping our little fluffy collaborators safe and healthy!

Two of my furry collaborators at the California National Primate Research Center: a male titi monkey and his approximately four-month-old daughter. Source: Alexander Baxter

While it’s a bummer to delay my planned testing, I will resume this study once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and the risk to our monkeys has abated. This has changed my study design slightly because my animals will have to be tested at a slightly different age and time of year, but due to titi monkeys’ non-seasonal breeding schedules (i.e. they can breed all year round) and highly motivated pair-bonding behavior, the changes in testing should not affect the results of this study. In the meantime, I’m working on data from my home and planning my 2021 field season.

Alexandra McInturf: “Aquatic creativity and collaboration”

I study how a given environment affects species physiology (i.e. how the body works), behavior, and distribution (i.e. inhabited areas) across the globe. I do so in aquatic and marine ecosystems, working with fishes like juvenile Chinook salmon in California and basking sharks in Ireland. My goal is to use this information to predict how such organisms will be affected by climate change, as both individuals and entire populations of animals react to increasing temperatures and other changes in their environments.

I am currently working on two projects. The first takes place in the laboratory, where I am examining how temperature affects predation risk of juvenile salmon. Many predators are designed to perform well at higher temperatures from a physiological perspective – they can move, hunt, and digest faster. This does not bode well for salmon in light of the increasing temperatures we are now experiencing. My experiments are necessary to determine the temperature ranges to which both salmon and their predators are optimally suited, in order to see if they overlap. To obtain this data, we need to assess swim performance in all species. 

My second project is focused on studying the distribution and behavior of the basking shark. I am working with the SeaMonitor Project in Ireland to deploy transmitters and cameras and collect interaction and movement data. Unfortunately, this species arrived at my field site just in time for the pandemic, and while we are able to collect sightings data from citizen scientists in Ireland, I will have to skip a critical year of data collection.

Preparation for both of these studies began in late fall of 2019. This entailed applying for funding and ordering equipment – cameras and transmitters for the basking sharks, accelerometers and other equipment to test swimming ability for the salmon (to learn more about how we measure movement in animals and why it is important, check out my former piece here). In the case of laboratory experiments, we also had to obtain and raise the fish. There were weeks of plumbing, cleaning tanks, emailing vendors and organizing international shipments of equipment. Boat time was secured for the basking shark field season, and dates established for international travel. By March of 2020, everything was nearly ready to go save the final details. 

A generally positive feature of my work is its collaborative nature; in the case of a global pandemic, however, this appears to be detrimental to the continuation of my projects. Our aquatic laboratory facility at UC Davis has limited the number of individuals permitted in the building, to comply with social distancing guidelines. This has prevented continuation of the salmon experiments for the time being. And of course, international travel for fieldwork has been effectively banned, for the health of all countries involved.

While it is certainly challenging to be missing a critical period of data collection for my dissertation, some momentum has been maintained. Our salmon were of sufficiently small size that we can wait for them to grow during this time, before we resume experiments. I’ve also been working with collaborators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to analyze basking shark sightings data along the western coast of the United States. Finally, as a member of the Irish Basking Shark Project, I am also helping encourage those in Ireland to report their own basking shark sightings data to our website. Ideally this information could be used to help explore what may be driving shark presence to this area.

Josie Hubbard: “Behavioral flexibility: from research to real-life practice”

Behavioral flexibility allows organisms to employ different behavioral strategies to better match current conditions that will improve their survival and fitness. I study mechanisms of behavioral flexibility using urban long tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) as a model system. This species prefers to live on the boundary edges between habitats, or in secondary forest which has regrown after human disturbance. These animals can live in a wide variety of environments, from mangrove swamps to urban city centers, making them good candidates for my research questions. To test them, I provide individuals with puzzles in the wild to assess their flexibility in solving cognitively demanding foraging problems.

Slice is the alpha male of one of our main study groups. Here he is pictured showing off his impressively long tail, the name-sake of this species (M. fascicularis).

Although the majority of cognitive testing on animals has been conducted in captivity, more recently scientists have adapted some of these methods for the field [1,2]. Testing individuals in their natural environment is more ecologically relevant since subjects must balance additional pressures often unaccounted for in captive testing, such as competition [3]. Perhaps more importantly, while captive testing provides us with a general overview of an animal’s cognitive abilities, these traits may differ markedly from wild counterparts [4]. These differences may be due to individual variation in necessity and the predictability of resources [5], which are considered major drivers for the evolution of cognitive traits in wild animals [6].  My research topic relies heavily on fieldwork (see my Field Notes piece here for an overview), as it allows me to conduct cognitive testing on individuals that is ecologically relevant, voluntary and non-invasive.

Our problem-solving testing in action! Pictured here is my lovely field assistant Nora, coding live data on how this male macaque, Pippin, is interacting with the novel puzzle box.

Starting in early March, I was supposed to start an entirely new project. The goal was to begin following a “control” group of rural macaques, which I planned to compare to the groups of urban macaques our team has been following in Malaysia for years [7, 8]. However, since these new groups have had little contact with humans, before I could study them I needed to habituate them first. This is a process where scientists follow animals until they become accustomed to their presence, after which they can begin collecting data. The groups I selected to habituate live in a palm oil plantation on the edge of the Segari Melintang Forest Reserve, Malaysia (Check out a map here). Habituating two wild groups of long tailed macaques, however, would be far from easy. I planned to hire two field assistants that were up for the task: traipsing around the forest from early morning until dusk searching for and maintaining contact with selected groups of monkeys. Although I didn’t expect that this process would take very long– I had visited some months before and observed their minor reluctant attitude towards humans – I allocated four months for the habituation process. However, I didn’t get very far once the news of the world-wide spread of COVID-19 was hitting the stands in early March. Within a few weeks’ time, not only had the habituation project been cancelled, but our entire team based out of Malaysia had been evacuated home to their respective countries. Thus, my story for fieldwork actually ends before it really even gets a chance to begin. The hired assistants were supposed to habituate these groups in order to enable me to subsequently test them with foraging extraction experiments. By testing the problem-solving performance of the rural groups, I would have then been able to compare them to the urban groups I have already tested (back in 2018) to explore the effects of urbanization on cognitive performance.

Me in my element: amongst the monkeys. This photo was taken while collecting data at our field site in an urban tourist park just outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Unfortunately, the cancellation of our habituation project, and my postponed fall field season, drastically changed the feasibility of pursuing my proposed research. Since it seemed the habituation would not be feasible anytime soon, this meant I could no longer explore how living in either urban or rural environments influenced an individual’s ability to solve problems. I needed to find a new angle. So instead of looking at group differences, I shifted to individual differences. On the bright side, once this structural decision to study individual differences had been made, I was easily able to switch my field season to next summer when (hopefully) the conditions have stabilized. Although these circumstances have been stressful, to say the least, the suspension of my field season has forced me to look at my project more critically and consider how I can approach my research questions from multiple angles. Now I’m even considering adding a captive component to my research. In the chances that fieldwork will not be possible next summer, this gives me a good backup plan that is feasible, cost-effective, and provides me with more experimental control than wild testing. All in all, the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 have required that people must be flexible with their plans moving forward, which ironically has also been a recurring theme for me throughout graduate school (including, but not limited to, the actual topic of my dissertation). Although the future is still shrouded in uncertainty in terms of the feasibility of travel or fieldwork, it is certain that these difficult times test our abilities to employ a little behavioral flexibility of our own, in order to best match our current, or future conditions.

Alexander Vining: “A jungle child’s side projects come front & center”

In the months before COVID 19 hit, I was collecting behavioral observations and thermal video recordings of kinkajous foraging for nectar in a balsa tree. 

This combined thermal and infrared video recording is of three kinkajous foraging in a balsa tree simultaneously

It was my second field season in Panama, a pilot season meant to test new methods for half of a two-part plan to study wayfinding and navigation in these cute canopy climbers. I had already finished one pilot season investigating how one kinkajou navigated at a large scale, observing her response to feeding stations I built throughout her home range. This second part of the project featured wayfinding at a small scale: how do kinkajous make efficient foraging decisions within complex, flower-rich tree crowns? Balsa trees make a great way to study this; their large flowers only last a day and the tree produces new ones each night. They provide a sort of natural spatial-problem-solving experiment. 

I wanted to know if kinkajous search balsa tree crowns randomly each night, if they have a preferred route they use to survey the tree systematically, or if they adjust their movements each night as they learn where the best flowers are. 

This kinkajou was not very bothered by my presence during observations; he crossed right over my head to get to a flower

The ways in which kinkajous solve these wayfinding problems at both a large and small scale is important for understanding their cognition more broadly. 

Good memory and flexible thinking can help animals find sparsely distributed food like the kinkajou’s favorite fruits and flowers much more efficiently [9]. It is not just wayfinding that is improved by these skills, however; spatial thinking is closely tied to measures of general intelligence [10] . The way humans think about space allows us to build cognitive maps: mental representations that help us navigate all sorts of more abstract concepts such as time, music, and social relationships [11]. If kinkajous solve navigational problems in similar ways, it could suggest their cognition is similar to ours in other domains as well.

Kinkajous are not the only animals that like balsa flowers; primates like this capuchin have a similar diet and face similar wayfinding challenges

Sadly, I did not get sufficient data to answer my questions during either field season, but that was not the point. I aimed only to figure out what was and was not possible in the field, acquire a sense of what kind of data I could collect, and make a plan for a bigger, grander field season that could answer at least a few of my burning questions. In that regard, I was successful. I wrapped up my second field season with plans to return in June. I crafted an achievable set of goals that would integrate everything I had learned into a year-long study of kinkajou movement across multiple spatial scales.

COVID 19 has all but removed the possibility of executing that plan during my Ph.D.

I am finishing the fourth year of my Ph.D., so I will be at the end of my fifth year by the time I complete a year-long field season. That does not leave a lot of time to analyze the data I collect and turn it into a dissertation. Since my work is seasonally dependent, a big delay means waiting until next year. Seven-year Ph.D.’s are not unheard of, but I do not want that to be my Plan A.

My field site seen from a drone. I’ll miss it if I am not able to go back.

So, I had to come up with a new plan. The good news is that I quickly realized that all the side projects I had started and then neglected in favor of pursuing my jungle-child fantasy could still come together into an achievable and exciting dissertation. 

The forced pause while we all shifted gears also allowed me to self-reflect. Why had I neglected these side projects in the first place? Could completing them help me go into a field season better prepared, with stronger questions and a more sophisticated analysis? I discovered that in my eagerness to get to the field, I was not taking the time to focus on some of the more challenging problems and develop detailed solutions. In building a new plan, I tried to use organizational tools I previously eschewed: a daily planner, lists, and concept maps. In the end, I may still get to go to the field for an abbreviated season and, though it has not been easy, I am going to come out of the coronavirus pandemic a better scientist.

[Edited by: Maggie Creamer & Karli Chudeau]


[1] Benson-Amram, S., & Holekamp, K. E. (2012). Innovative problem solving by wild spotted hyenas. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1744), 4087-4095.

[2] van de Waal, E., Renevey, N., Favre, C. M., & Bshary, R. (2010). Selective attention to philopatric models causes directed social learning in wild vervet monkeys. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1691), 2105-2111. 

[3] Hare, B. (2001). Can competitive paradigms increase the validity of experiments on primate social cognition?. Animal Cognition, 4(3-4), 269-280.

[4] Unwin, T., & Smith, A. (2010). Behavioral differences between provisioned and non-provisioned Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus). Anthrozoös, 23(2), 109-118.

[5] Mettke‐Hofmann, C. (2014). Cognitive ecology: ecological factors, life‐styles, and cognition. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 5(3), 345-360.

[6] Guillette, L. M., Naguib, M., & Griffin, A. S. (2017). Individual differences in cognition and personality. Behavioural Processes, 134(5), 1–3.

[7] Marty, P. R., Beisner, B., Kaburu, S. S., Balasubramaniam, K., Bliss-Moreau, E., Ruppert, N., & McCowan, B. (2019). Time constraints imposed by anthropogenic environments alter social behaviour in longtailed macaques. Animal behaviour, 150, 157-165.

[8] Kaburu, S. S., Beisner, B., Balasubramaniam, K. N., Marty, P. R., Bliss-Moreau, E., Mohan, L., & McCowan, B. (2019). Interactions with humans impose time constraints on urban-dwelling rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta). Behaviour, 1(aop), 1-28.

[9] Boyer, D., & Walsh, P. D. (2010). Modelling the mobility of living organisms in heterogeneous landscapes: Does memory improve foraging success? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 368(1933), 5645–5659.

[10] Casey, B. M. (2013). Individual and Group Differences in Spatial Ability. In Waller, D., & Nadel (Eds.), Handbook of Spatial Cognition (pp. 117-134). Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

[11] Schiller, D., Eichenbaum, H., Buffalo, E. A., Davachi, L., Foster, D. J., & Leutgeb, S. (2015). Memory and Space : Towards an Understanding of the Cognitive Map. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(41), 13904–13911.

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