Howler Monkeys

“Baby monkey, but the PUMA! Oh my god!” yelled the sweaty man. He looked at us, three college girls hiking along the trail with a satchel of insects in plastic baggies and socks tucked into our field pants, and ran back the way he had come, over the fallen logs and around the trees and thick vines. 

What would you do if a crazy man ran out of the jungle and screamed something like that at you? 

We followed him off the path, of course, leaving our packs at the forest’s edge and picking our way inwards. Our crazy man wasn’t alone, as we soon found- a guide was waiting with him under a big tree, and with one mystery solved we started wondering what exactly they were both so excited about: the guide told us breathlessly of the mother howler monkey they had spotted giving birth in the canopy above. We’d heard the troop start making noise, actually, and wondered what had set them off- it seems they might have been at first welcoming their newest member before tragedy struck. The mother, after cuddling her baby for the first time, tried to remove the umbilical cord… and dropped the not-five-minute-old infant twenty meters to the jungle floor. 

Of course the mother, like any animal (humans included) deeply invested in her offspring, nearly flew down the tree to retrieve her baby, but this was Corcovado, the most biologically intense place on earth. It wasn’t going to be that easy. On her way down the tree the mother monkey was met by a leaping mountain lion (Puma concolor). I can only imagine the wave of muscles and damp fur that rose to meet the already-terrified monkey, but still I can’t blame her for taking the edge of the blow on her shoulder and then retreating to the top of the tree, where she sat screaming by the time we arrived at this bizarre scene. 

After the guide and tourist had explained most of this to us, I looked around. We had been at rapt attention hearing about this explosion of energy in what had been a fairly peaceful afternoon (for this jungle, anyways). Now, every shrub could be hiding a cougar; every tree, every vine might be breaking up the outlines of a predator and it hit me that we, too, were potential food in an unfriendly wilderness. The shrieking of the howler troop above did nothing to lighten the atmosphere. But the next words out of the guide’s mouth changed the scene considerably.

“The baby is still here.”

The mountain lion, for all its patience and predatory skill in pursuing the mother monkey, seemed to have been unaware of the newborn, and now that five humans were on the scene it seemed unlikely that it would return to play an active role in finding the baby. The mother, traumatized by her recent near-death experience, was also unlikely to return to the ground anytime soon… which left us, straining our eyes and ears to determine if anything was left of the life that had so recently and so dramatically been introduced to the cycles of jungle existence. 

We found the baby under leaves, clinging with closed eyes to a twig and making tiny, unhappy noises. 

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You can see the afterbirth in this photo- it’s the blueish-white lump under a leaf directly below the little monkey’s face. And it was still attached. Much to the distress of the baby monkey. 

“Do you have a pocket knife?” the guide asked me. Of course I did, but I didn’t expect his next statement. “You have to cut the umbilical cord.”

I’m an ecologist, a student of natural systems and interspecific interactions, an observer of the world and a fairly educated human being. But in this situation, I had no idea what to do. The arguments against intervening at all were very strong- I’d be interfering with a natural system, I could hurt the baby, or I could myself get some sort of disease from contact. But on the other hand, it was impossible to tell how much our presence had already affected the events of that patch of forest that day, like the actions of the mountain lion or the hesitance of the mother to return to the ground for her infant. And tangled in what had once been its life support system, the baby could hardly move or breathe. So in a haze of bewilderment, I tied my hair back, got out my pocket knife, and picked up the baby in the leaves that had fallen on it.

Her. She was a baby girl, sticky and warm and strong-fingered, wrapping her tail tight around my forearm. I pinched and snipped her cord, dropping the afterbirth to the ground and trying to keep my skin away from her tiny body, but her arms scrabbled for me and she wanted, so clearly, with her tiny now-opened eyes and elf ears and wrinkled face all straining forward, to be close to another being. 

I could feel her ribcage, her heartbeat, her breath in my hand, and her little cries broke my heart as I’m sure they were breaking the heart of her mother high in the trees. 

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We left her near where we found her, tucked between a tree’s buttresses. Her family watched from above and I prayed to anyone listening- pumas, monkeys, tourists, or gods- to let her rejoin her clan in the canopy. I had no business interfering any further in the life of the rainforest, but as we walked away from the tiny baby I had just peeled off of my arm, all I wanted was to make sure she got every chance to make it to her next birthday. 

Life goes on. I’ll never know what happened to her after we left, and I can’t make myself believe that she made it or that she didn’t. Life goes on. 

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Free as a Bird

I’ve seen an awful lot of birds thus far- everything from brown boobies to exotic hummingbirds to scarlet macaws to jabirus- and every time (except maybe in the case of tinamous) I’m just a little (or a lot) jealous of their ability to fly. 

Imagine catching a big thermal and just lofting up and up in a big, lazy spiral, or stooping into a dive before snapping your wings out and jerking back into the sky on sheer momentum. Imagine hovering at flowers, or snatching beetles out of the air with your face. (Maybe that last one isn’t as appealing.)

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Imagine feeling the power under you as your engines start up and your propeller picks up speed and you reach the end of the bumpy grass runway with just enough lift to pick you up over the short trees at the end and just enough thrust to push you out over the teal-green ocean before you gain speed and altitude. 

Well, that last bit I’ve done.

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We flew out of Corcovado with the gear- I opted for the aerial view this time, rather than the terrestrial. Our pilot was reportedly the only one who flies in and out of Sirena Station, in his little single-engine Cessna. He definitely knew what he’s doing, but it still terrified me a little bit when he landed, props still spinning, leaped out, and lit up a cigarette all within a few feet of the engine. 

He’s been doing this short trip for 25 years or something like it- I guess you get casual on the job after that long, and you really don’t see that many old stupid pilots- so we hopped on with half of the baggage and took off into thin air.

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The view was glorious, and the wind in my face from the open window helped with the illusion of my own personal flight. 

Until someone invents jetpacks for the masses, though, I guess that’s about as close as I’ll get to really flying. I’m sort of okay with that in an actual real-life way… but I’m going to keep watching those birdies and flapping my fingertips.

Fat-Bottomed Spider Ladies

In the spider world, big girls really ARE beautiful. Male Nephila clavipes (golden orb-weaving spiders) on search for mates choose the biggest female they can find, preferring to duke it out with other males than search for an unclaimed lady-friend. Our project in Corcovado had to do with feeding different-sized prey to different-sized female Nephila, as well as counting the numbers of “kleptoparasites” (little spiders that steal prey from the big spiders’ webs) and males each female was hosting in her web. 

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They’re beautiful to watch as they build webs and snare their prey… but they’re fraidy-cats when it comes to anything bigger than this cicada. Still, that’s an impressive predator-prey size ratio. This big girl sure can handle herself. Watch out, spider-boys…

Hurry Up and Wait

Pretty much all of the best pictures I’ve taken on this trip have been a result of a super nice little camera (Canon G11- this baby’s been around the world twice now and is hardly worse for wear), good advice on framing and lighting from my parents and my big sister, and an awful lot of waiting around ready to fire off a shot. 

I spent, for example, two and a half hours sitting on a patch of mangrove roots over a murky estuary as the tide rose toward my feet, scanning the water and contemplating the science one could do if the crocodiles on the other bank would only come closer and stop being quite so bitey, waiting for this shot of a young bull shark come in with the tide.

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I knew they’d be coming through, thanks to some good tips from our professor and the guides around the station. They follow the big predatory marine fish up into the brackish water to hunt the same, who are in turn hunting the smaller freshwater fish that by the time I got there were already cowering by the banks of the Río Sirena. All I needed was a bit of sunscreen, a sharp eye out for crocs, and the time and patience to match the tiger herons’.

This shot, on the other hand, wasn’t a sit-and-wait sort of experience. It was a run-and-get-ready. Squirrel monkeys are small, shy, and on the move, and I was fairly resigned to the possibility that I might not ever get a good photo of one on this trip. We’d spotted them a day or two before high in the canopy, and hadn’t managed to get more than a quick peek through our binoculars before they were gone. But some wonderful guide walking right in front of me spied them in the trees by the station, focused his telescope in the blink of an eye, and let me take this picture through that lens at the briefly resting mother and baby here.

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It was waiting of a different kind- waiting to spring into action. I was suddenly very glad that I’d been carrying my camera all day, despite the strap cutting into my neck as I hiked and the sweat that dripped alarmingly close to its delicate electronics. I’ve resolved never to be without my trusty little friend through the rest of this trip, save possibly in the bathroom. You never know when that perseverance is going to land you a postcard-worthy opportunity… like this one.

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Welcome to Biology

“The most biologically intense place on earth,” they call it. 

ImageThings live here (frequently) that live almost nowhere else. The forest is hot and wet and crawling with life of all kinds… you know you’re somewhere interesting when this is what you see on your front porch before breakfast:

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It’s a very young green iguana, probably feeding on the bugs attracted to the porch flowers.

Later that same day, we saw a three-toed sloth and a tapir (don’t worry, I’ll post sloth pictures soon, it’s just that the photos I took of each of those animals look like they MIGHT have something in them but just as well might not… the later sloth photos are worth the wait). Anything and everything could and was lurking and creeping and flapping and fluttering and swinging in the canopy, through the tree trunks, along the rivers, and under the ground. And the cicadas simply never stopped. If you want to feel immersed in the rush and quivering palpable intensity that is life on this planet, there is no better place than Corcovado, where everything is alive and growing and dying and changing all at once.

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Looks nice and peaceful, doesn’t it? From a distance, with the mute on, and with just the right framing…

The Big Hike In

From the ranger’s station at the edge of Corcovado National Park to the Sirena Station, it’s about a 15 minute flight. Or, if you’re Dartmouth Bio FSP, it’s about a 23 km hike along a jungle trail.

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23 km is a long way, especially if you’re carrying three liters of water, binoculars, camera, safety supplies, and doing all of this in 90-degree weather. But the scenery was fascinating and the company was fun. Corcovado is located on the Osa Peninsula, one of the largest stretches of primary-growth lowland rainforest in Central America, untouched by man besides the rough trail and the research/tourist stations farther in, and known to National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth.” The biodiversity is huge and the plants and animals strange and colorful, with giant waxy leaves and bright feathers in the most unexpected places, vines draped across trees like arms around shoulders, and fungi peeking out from the moist clay and crumbling logs.

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The three big nutrient cyclers of the forest are actually quite commonly seen… but easily overlooked. Termites, army ants, and leaf-cutter ants abound and make up a large part of the animal biomass of the forest, astounding for their size. These leaf-cutters were the first we saw this trip, but they soon became ubiquitous along the trail. 

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Among the other exotic creatures was a simultaneously cryptic and vivid poison dart frog- I’m used to seeing these in pictures and behind glass, but to see one in real life was almost unbelievable. It looked like a little plastic toy in the leaves… until it hopped into the jungle.

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The walk took us about seven hours, down red-clay trails and over tree roots, across streams and under the ever-present drone of the cicadas. 

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But we all made it in good health and good spirits to Sirena Station, the intersection between river, beach, and jungle at the edge of the wildest jungle we’ve visited and the biggest ocean on the planet. We could feel the adventure waiting in the air around us… but it could wait until after dinner.

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Adventures High and Low

I’ve been gone for a while, but I am now back into fairly-constant wifi and hot shower territory! 

It’s been a heck of an adventure since I posted last, and the catch-up posts will take at least a few days. General outline: we spent several days in Cuericí, a high montane primary and secondary forest reserve in the Talamanca mountains, right on the continental divide of Central America (not sure about the term “continental divide” here, but that’s how it was described to me), and then hiked 23 km in to Sirena Station in Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula, a huge tract of primary lowland rainforest. Each place was “jungle” like you’d imagine from books and movies, though one was fairly high and cold and wet while the other was low and hot and damp (and buggy beyond belief). 

Those posts will soon follow this one- just to catch you up, we have all just had nice hot showers at Las Cruces Botanical Gardens (an OTS station) and are checking our oodles of emails and messages. Glad to be back in contact with the world- the jungle was getting pretty surreal. Find out why SOON!