Sunday, August 18, 2013

Finding primates

 A question I often get asked is how we find the animals. Well, the short answer is we look. We walk around the forest, using trails if they’re available, with our heads craned up to see the highest branches. (Yes, it eventually hurts your neck a lot to do so much looking up). If we can’t find them using the trails, we start going into the woods. (If you’re lucky, you’ve got a machete to cut your way through-we didn’t.) Spider webs inevitably cling to your face. Thankfully, I have yet to find any large spiders clinging to me. You can also wave a stick in front of where you walk, like a magic wand, so that the spider webs cling to the stick and not your face. I do this often. Anyways, we search, and we search, and we search, and we listen. Sometimes you can hear the primates moving or hear them foraging. They drop leaves or they may break a twig and it falls to the forest floor. If you’re lucky, they vocalize. Primates are not entirely silent creatures.
Sifaka in gallery forest

In the beginning, when you’re new to a troop of primates you’re studying, there can be a lot of searching. You can spend hours of your week walking around, stopping and looking for the slightest movement. But there are some tricks to finding primates. If it’s first thing in the morning, they’re likely eating somewhere. If it’s cold out, they’re probably high up in the branches sunning themselves. If it’s the middle of the day and really hot, they’re probably resting in a shaded spot. Think like a primate! If it’s starting to get dark, they’re probably moving to their sleeping trees. Once you’ve followed the same troop for a few occasions, you start to know the area they cover and they’re habits. Maybe they have a particular sleeping site they often return to. Perhaps there’s one or two species of tree they really enjoy eating, so you search for those trees.

Can you spot the sifaka?

I think someone should do a study where they have radio-collared troops whose locations are always known, and then send a bunch of primatologists into the forest looking for primates. I bet you anything the primatologists walk right by the primates a few times. I think my assistant and I walked by the group we were trying to find at least twice today. Maybe three times. How hard is it to find seven white, sifakas in a green and brown forest? Well, if the sifakas aren’t moving and the bright sun is making everything look even whiter, it’s not a piece of cake.

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