Field Notes: Peru Pilot Trip

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a good deal of research was put on pause to protect the health of our global community and the animals we work with. While the pandemic is still an ongoing threat, some researchers have been able to safely resume data collection. The field notes shared here are from my September 2021 pilot field season that was planned in consultation with UC Davis to ensure a safe and health-conscious trip. For more information, please see the UC Davis Global Affairs Travel page.

In April of 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic fell into place in the United States, I was awarded a research grant to conduct field work and broaden my research program to include wild titi monkeys. My dissertation work up until that point had consisted of asking exciting questions about titi monkey behavior in the captive setting at the UC Davis California National Primate Research Center. Because many of my research questions are relevant to wild titi monkeys, studying them in their natural habitat is a vital piece of my research. However, my plans to travel abroad were swiftly delayed as everyone sheltered in place. In May of 2021, I posted this field frame, showcasing my research equipment hanging out in the office, waiting for the day field biology would again be possible. Despite a year of sheltering in place, field work still seemed a long way off.

In August of 2021, I received an exciting phone call from my mentor: not only was field work possible, it was possible now. In a whirlwind of travel preparation and coordination with my collaborators, I planned for a pilot trip to Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco (EBQB) in Loreto, Peru [1]. Approximately a month after that initial phone call, I was in the air on the way to Peru.

A coppery titi monkey (Plecturocebus cupreus) at Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco in Loreto, Peru. Photo taken through binoculars [Source: Allison Lau]

The goals of this pilot trip were two-fold: 1) to learn how to get to and return home from the field site and 2) pilot recording equipment and playbacks with the coppery titi monkeys at EBQB. Wonderfully, both aims were a success! Here’s my quick account of how the trip went and the exciting research I was able to accomplish while there.

Travel to EBQB

By far the most daunting part of working at EBQB was the travel. While getting to the field site takes four days (two days by air and two days by boat), the process went much smoother than expected. I flew into Iquitos, Loreto, Peru and spent a night in the city. The next morning, I boarded the colectivo boat called Sanchez. Sanchez is a combination passenger and cargo boat that serves a handful of villages up the Amazon River and Rio Tahuayo (a smaller river that intersects with the Amazon in multiple locations). 

The inside of Sanchez, the colectivo boat that travels from Iquitos to Chino [Source: Allison Lau]

Sanchez makes the trip upriver three days a week, downriver three days a week, and rests for one day. The last stop on Sanchez’s route is the village Chino, my destination. The journey from Iquitos to Chino takes ten hours and along the way I saw a variety of birds, tons of boats traveling the river, and pink river dolphins!

If you look closely, you’ll spot the backs of two pink river dolphins at the confluence of the Rio Tahuayo and the Amazon River. Pink river dolphins hunt for fish in this location, where the two rivers joining creates a flurry of sediment [Source: Allison Lau].

Once in Chino, I spent the night with a local host family who supports the research station. The next morning, I spent 2.5 hours on a peque-peque boat (named as such for the distinctive sound of the motor) before arriving at EBQB.

The field site itself is a fantastic spot in the heart of the lowland amazon rainforest. Located along a crystal clear creek, the Quebrada Blanco (white creek), EBQB is a piece of undisturbed jungle in which insects, birds, amphibians, mammals, fungi, and all matter of plant life thrive. For anyone interested in working at this beautiful field site, please contact the author at alljones [at] ucdavis.edu.

Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco in Loreto, Peru [Source: Allison Lau]

Titi Monkeys

Going into this pilot trip, I knew there were a handful of titi monkey groups at the site. Thanks to the phenomenal dissertation work conducted by Dr. Sofya Dolotovskaya, fourteen pairs of titi monkeys that live near the field station are habituated (used to human presence). During my trip to Peru, I capitalized on the known home ranges of these titi pairs and set out AudioMoth passive acoustic recorders to attempt to triangulate the location of calling titi monkeys.

A pair of titi monkeys at Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco in Loreto, Peru. Can you spot the two brown bodies and their light-colored tails? [Source: Allison Lau]

These recordings were quite successful. We recorded the morning duets of multiple pairs of titi monkeys at the field station. This validated that the recorders are appropriate for the project I intend to run at the station and provided justification for purchasing additional recorders. Though titi monkeys were the goal, I also recorded quite a few macaws, a myriad of other animals that I have not yet identified, and a pretty impressive rainstorm.

Beyond piloting passive acoustic recording, I also conducted playbacks to locate a particularly elusive titi monkey pair. I broadcasted the recordings of duetting titi monkeys from the California National Primate Research Center via a speaker within the territory of a previously habituated pair of titi monkeys. This method has been used previously to elicit a vocal response from animals and locate them. The pair in question at EBQB had not been seen in close to two years, as it can be difficult to locate and track titi monkeys high in the canopy. Our playback did get a response from the group that lived there! The pair appeared and counter-called to the recording. We were able to follow the pair for the rest of the day to monitor their home range and behavior. This pair has now been included in regular monitoring of our titi pairs. And to top it all off, the pair had a new addition: their juvenile son was quite hesitant at first, but quickly warmed up to us researchers.

Me conducting a playback at Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco in Loreto, Peru [Source: Allison Lau]

Overall, my pilot trip to Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco was a huge success. I’m working on plans for a summer 2022 field season and hope to share the results of that study on The Ethogram in the near future!

Allison Lau is a PhD Candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. She studies the communication of pair-bonding mammals including titi monkeys, gibbons, and coyotes. When she’s not actively working on bioacoustics, you can find her working on her latest children’s novel with her two cats and a litter of foster kittens.

[1] Heymann, E. W., Dolotovskaya, S., & Herrera, E. R. T. (2021). Estación Biológica Quebrada Blanco. ECOTROPICA23(1/2), 202101-202101.

[Edited by Josie Hubbard and Maggie Creamer]

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