Field Research Training Program: Wildlife Biology
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Program Specialty Tracks
Our long-term research training program features four specialty tracks. While participants all work together to make the field season a success, those enrolled in a given specialty track will spend approximately 60% of their time engaged in the core activities of that particular project. The remaining 40% of the time is spent learning more general field skills that support all projects, as well as helping out other teams that need assistance. The goal is to offer a more well-rounded experience that will better prepare students for future field studies and research.
Program Overview and History
Since 2009, the smallest rainforest primates at the Los Amigos Biological Station where we conduct our research have been monitored in a unique long-term program spanning 17 social groups, over 200 unique animals. Initially, the focus had been limited to two species: the saddleback tamarin (Leontocebus weddelli) and the emperor tamarin (Saguinus imperator), but our mark-recapture program now also incorporates capuchins (Sapajus apella macrocephalus) and brown titi monkeys (Plecturocebus brunneus). Although it began with a study of genetic chimerism, this monitoring program has expanded to include studies on health, communication, reproduction, behavior, and movement. It integrates several tools in a conservationists’ toolbox – from field genomics to miniaturized GPS tracking – in order to get a complete picture of the biology of these mammals, which is critical to their protection across South America.
This training program provides a singular opportunity for individuals with an interest in primate monitoring, zoology, or veterinary science to gain practical skills and experience that are not easy to come by.
Left: Saguinus imperator, Right: Leontocebus weddelli (Photos by Ishaan Raghunandan)
Biodiversity and Wildlife Health
The Madre de Dios (MDD) region of Peru is part of the Tropical Andes Biodiversity Hotspot, which includes the Andes mountains and the adjacent lowlands of Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Bolivia, and some portions of northern Argentina and Chile. Within the hotspot, the MDD has been designated Peru’s “biodiversity capital” by law, with over 50% of it protected either in a private conservation concession or as a regional protected area. A 2018 assessment of the MDD revealed the following statistics: 6809 plant, 1212 bird, 272 fish, 256 mammal, 183 amphibian, and 143 reptile species. The indigenous groups living in this region most certainly have valuable knowledge of these species, and likely more that are new to science, but even among those documented by scientists, there is much yet to be learned. The Los Amigos Conservation Hub where this study takes place is within the Los Amigos Conservation Concession, established in 2000.
Figure: Overall Neotropical primate species richness compared to primate richness in the Amazon basin. The red-to-yellow gradient color indicates high-to-low richness of primates that are endemic to the Amazon. (a) A west-eastern gradient from the Andes mountains toward the Atlantic Ocean is observed, where the main tributaries of the Amazon river delimit the distribution of several primate species. (b) The Amazon hosts the higher gridded richness of primates in the Neotropics. Figure adopted from: Sales, L., Ribeiro, B.R., Chapman, C.A. and Loyola, R., 2020. Multiple dimensions of climate change on the distribution of Amazon primates. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation
A very small proportion of these animals have their DNA sequenced, with records saved in global biodiversity databases. Even fewer still have complete genomes assembled. The primary reasons for this are a) a disparity in the rate of development of sequencing technologies and the accessibility of these technologies globally – while one end of the spectrum races ahead, it leaves several others behind; b) high costs to conducting genomic studies; c) the difficulty of acquiring biological samples from so many animal species and d), the need to export specimens out of the MDD region for analysis.
All of this is about to change, and necessarily so, for two reasons:
- Biodiversity loss is at a critical level in the region. A recent study found that between 1993 and 2013, forest cover was converted to agriculture by 470%, to mining areas by 938%, and urban areas expanded into agricultural land by 187%. This was inspired in part by the lagging economic development of the MDD region, which stimulated several programs to encourage infrastructure building and job development. In 2010 for example, the Interoceanic Highway that connects the Pacific ports of Peru with Brazil was completed, which has encouraged immigration, economic development, and the growth of many secondary roads. Unfortunately, as in many places globally, the balance between development and conservation is a delicate one, not easily maintained.
- Sequencing has just become smaller, more efficient, and less costly with the advent of portable nanopore sequencers produced by Oxford Nanopore Technologies. In conjunction with dozens of other pieces of equipment that now have slimmer more field-friendly versions on the market, field genomics is fast-approaching a reality instead of a dream.
Animal Movement & Spatial Ecology
Movement ecology is the study of the drivers and consequences of all movement phenomena. Drivers include environmental changes, distribution of resources, inter- and intraspecific interactions, social organisation, physiology/anatomy and navigation capabilities. Consequences include alterations to the species’ population genetic landscape, spatial structure of plant communities via seed dispersal, transmission of pathogens and parasites, and changes to the activity patterns of other sympatric animals. Importantly, the drivers and consequences of animal movement are dynamic, existing in a perpetual feedback which influences the ecosystem as a whole. Our goal is to make visible this interdependent matrix of factors in a tropical rainforest by collecting unprecedented layers of data on habitat in conjunction with animal movement.
Unlike the majority of other studies on animal movement that invest heavily in one or two closely-associated species, our present interest is the broader animal network. Building from our large-scale wildlife mark-recapture and monitoring efforts that span small rodents to arboreal primates and aerial bats/birds, we have a unique opportunity to document the movement of many sympatric species simultaneously. While this may seem like an obvious study that many have attempted before, in reality, research on community-level movement phenomena have never been undertaken in a Neotropical system, and rarely anywhere else, but not for lack of interest. Among many potential explanations for this, three are most likely : 1) tagging wildlife is expensive, 2) existing animal tag technology is biased toward a minority of large charismatic animals , 3) rarely to field biologists, plant ecologists, wildlife geneticists, wildlife veterinarians, endocrinologists, and toxicologists have the opportunity to influence the design, creation, and intended use of animal tracking technology and consequently the species and systems they value most are omitted from the process. For example, imagine how camera traps might be different if they were primarily developed for field scientists and not game hunting.
Always aware of this need, since 2018 FPI has been directly and indirectly (through select partners) working on redoing tracking and monitoring technology from the point of view of the field scientists. To date, we have prototyped a range of devices that passively and actively collect animal presence or movement data. These include Naturechips, LoRa mesh networks, autonomous animal stakeout systems, and diverse animal tracking systems (intended to span the smallest to largest Neoptrical animals).
With funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in 2021, FPI partnered with Amazon Conservation, Conservación Amazónica (ACCA), San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, and the Washington University School of Medicine to build capacity for field-based biosurveillance where it is needed most. This led to the formation of the In Situ Labs Initiative and the construction of a molecular laboratory at the Los Amigos Biological Station in Southeastern Peru.
Historically, access to advanced laboratory technology has been largely confined to foreign researchers from outside tropical rainforest habitat countries. This as lots of unfortunate consequence such as risks of degradation of samples during lengthy transport, many costs associated with transport and storage, hassles of export and import permits (especially time consuming and difficult for young researchers and graduate students to accommodate), massive delays to completed studies involved genetic techniques, and of course the fact that in-country scientists are not able to equally participate in scientific or conservation research. Thus, we have many aims with the creatioof the ISL and establishment of its first field genetics hub.
In the next several years a variety of projects will be carried out pertaining to pathogen screening, population assessment with species-specific SNP sets, molecular based dietary and microbiome analyses, and ecotoxicology (especially focused on the movement and uneven accumulation of methylmercury).
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Apply online here. You will need a CV/resume and two references.
2. Once we hear from your references, we will schedule an interview with the principal investigator of your desired project
3. If accepted, you will be notified within 1 week
4. Upon acceptance, gain student access to online training modules to get prepared before you arrive.
5. Turn in medical info, vaccination record, liability waivers, etc.
6. See you in the field!
While it is impossible to predict how the global pandemic will continue to unfold, we were able to safely conduct our programs in 2021, and fully expect to do so again in 2022. However, we do ask that all participants, upon acceptance into the program, check with us before purchasing airline tickets.
*If a program postponement occurs and a participant could no longer join on the revised dates, we would refund all fees paid up to that point, minus a 1.5% credit card processing fee. Similarly, if FPI must cancel a program completely for any reason, we will refund participant fees.
Learn more about FPI and COVID-19 HERE.
If FPI cancels a program due to complications related to COVID-19, participants would receive all but 1.5% of fees already paid. The 1.5% represents the credit processing fees charged to FPI for accepting online payments.
Our cancellation policy is:
- 30 days or more before your start date: 45% refunded
- Less than 30 days from your start date: no refund is possible
Our cancellation policy specific to COVID-19:
- Before May 1st, if you cancel for a COVID-19 related reason, you will get all payments refunded, minus a 1.5% credit processing fee.
- After May 1st, FPI will have paid a large portion of your program fees to our field station partners, who provide your accommodations and meals the entire time you are on site. This means that those withdrawing due to COVID-19 after May 1st will be refunded all fees paid minus 6.5%. This portion is retained solely to cover our own credit processing fees, as well as the bank fees incurred by our partners at the Los Amigos Conservation Hub in Peru.
Yes, but it would have to be approved by your university, who will also bill you for the credit hours. If approved, there is also an additional $250 fee that serves as an honorarium for the FPI senior scientist mentoring you through this project. From there, it is just a matter of coordinating between your university mentor and the FPI researcher.
In order to train our research teams, it is necessary that everyone arrives on specific start dates. However, for some programs we are able to provide multiple start dates in order to accommodate the varying schedules of researchers and participants. Note: this is not offered for all of our programs, so please pay attention to the specific start times for each program. If you REALLY cannot make a particular start date, don’t abandon hope – email us and we can do our best to accommodate you!
There are pretty firm minimum requirements for each program (typically 5 weeks). These are firm because each participant must be trained, during which time the data they collect cannot be relied upon entirely. Anything less than the minimum time is deemed insufficient for the research assistant to contribute real data to the project. However, for most programs, you are welcome to apply for stays that are longer than the minimum period, which is common among our student researchers.
If you have a special circumstance and want to request a shorter program time, you may contact us and we will discuss it with the lead investigators on your chosen project. There is no guarantee, but in the past we have been able to accommodate on occasion.
Our courses have fewer enrollment requirements, and we strongly encourage anyone to apply. The long-term programs involve becoming an integral part of a research team, and thus are more competitive.
You absolutely can apply to both a field course and a long-term training program if the dates will line up! In fact, if you are accepted into the long-term program you can attend a field course for a lower fee (typically a $400 discount)
No, you do not need previous research experience. These are training programs designed for participants at all levels. It can be hard to acquire field experience, so we balance our teams with veteran researchers and those new to the world of field research. We seek bright and enthusiastic candidates with the right temperament to work in this challenging environment.
The cost to participate includes lodging and all meals at the field station, transportation between Puerto Maldonado and the field station, specialized training for candidates accepted into the program, and the provision of equipment and supplies necessary to conduct this research.
A large majority of the fees paid to our training programs cover lodging fees charged by the host field station. Importantly, at the Los Amigos Biological Station lodging fees not only support the cost of running and maintaining a remote field site, but contribute to the larger mission of their parent NGO (Association for the Conservation of the Amazon Basin) to protect conservation areas, monitor deforestation, maintain wildlife corridors, and more.
We are now able to offer a peer-to-peer fundraising program for research assistants. Once accepted, you would be able to (optionally) create a shareable profile on our platform. This is a team-based initiative, so half of your raised funds will go toward your own program fees, while the other half will go into pool to be split evenly among all program participants who had at least 5 donors. More details will be available during (and after) your interview.
If you require help with the cost of the program, there are other options that you might pursue as well. You could start by contacting the Office of Undergraduate Research of your school, or request professional development support from your employer. Here you can explore what is available through your college/place-of-work, as well as through external funding sources. Many universities have SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) programs, which may provide stipends for students to pursue independent research. Please note that if you do find any kind of research-related funding — as many RAs have in the past — it will need to be applied for in conjunction with us, on research projects that we approve. In this case, one of our principal investigators will consult with you about developing a project that is feasible.
All participants are required to show proof of medical insurance before joining us in the field. Many travel insurance providers can assist with emergency medical coverage and emergency medical evacuation. Be certain that COVID-19 is covered in your plan.
You will have to provide proof of a normal vaccination record (as listed here by the CDC). For travel to Peru, we require that you also get the following vaccines:
- Yellow Fever
- COVID-19 (no exceptions)
- Rabies pre-exposure series (only for those in programs involving wildlife handling of mammals.)
If you have the flu shot for the year, all the better. Find a travel clinic and get your shots EARLY.
Some candidates may have an opportunity to win a grant that will fund their research assistantship site fees and travel. However, the grant requires them to submit a research proposal. If this is your situation, we may be able to work with you on a proposal. Contact us at info(at)fieldprojects.org and we can help you structure one. We cannot accommodate completely independent projects, but we can assist you with finding a subset of our samples or data that has not yet been fully used, which you could develop further with supervision.
Yes, you can. We do not give co-authorship for collecting data alone, but we offer interested students the opportunity to work on data analyses after the summer research program, that could lead to co-authorship in the future. Many of our former field team members have gone on to become research collaborators.
It is too early to predict any quarantine requirements that may be in place for those arriving in Peru. However, in 2021, the 14-day quarantine was permitted at each visitor’s final destination if they got there within 24 hours after landing in Lima. The field station where we work was permitted to serve as this site, since they meet all government-approved COVID protocols, and have the capacity to maintain social distance between all visitors.
Negative tests are not currently an official requirement for those arriving at the field station, but a strong recommendation. Researchers from different institutions and others who are not affiliated with FPI also use this field station, and while temperatures will be taken and screening questions will be asked of everyone, there is no guarantee that an asymptomatic or presymptomatic person won’t be present. This means that masks, social distancing, and other detailed protocols are especially important. In addition, this is why we require all participants to get vaccinated.
The first signs of suspected symptoms or a temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit should be reported immediately to the field station managers and FPI senior scientists. They will have protocols for isolating symptomatic guests, arranging viral testing, notifying those you have been in contact with, and evacuating you to the nearest hospital if necessary. (Note that travel to a hospital and any care there is at your own cost; make sure your insurance policy covers this.)
The nearest healthcare facilities are in Puerto Maldonado, which is approximately 4-5 hours downriver from our field site. In that city, our Peruvian partners have a recommended doctor certified by MINSA (the Ministry go Health). There are also other private and public healthcare options. The private facilities are more expensive (one of the reasons we require participants to have travel medical insurance), but they will likely be able to treat patients faster if public facilities are full.
The second option would be in Cusco, which is approximately 10 hours by car from Puerto Maldonado. There are more clinics in Cusco than Puerto Maldonado.
*While everyone will have their temperatures taken upon arrival by an infrared thermometer, we suggest that participants bring their own thermometers in their first-aid kits, and check themselves daily.
If a person must leave the field station to get treatment and recover from COVID-19, they will be permitted to return after 7 days with a negative antigen test. A negative molecular test will let someone back to the station after 14 days.
The field station’s safety protocols apply to everybody: staff, researchers, guests, and visitors. We do not yet know exactly what these will be in June 2022, but we can share some insight from 2021.
In 2021, every new person arriving at the field station met with the science director to go over the COVID-protocol with them personally, including the mandatory use of face masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing. There are planned spaces equipped for maximum distance between people.
People living or traveling together in a group for more than 14 days were able to share the same table at the commissary and will be treated as a “grupo de aislamiento,” keeping distance from other guests or groups. Room service and/or separate seating at different tables will be arranged for all others.
The field station also practiced “cuarentena laboral.” This means that there were separate working areas, and everyone was expected to avoid using workspaces and equipment that was designated for other individuals or groups.
According to the U.S. State Department website, you must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 3 calendar days prior to boarding a flight bound for the United States, and sign an attestation confirming this. The test must be either NAAT (nucleic acid amplification tests such as PCR or LAMP), or it can be a viral antigen test. These tests reflect your current status, whereas an antibody test does not.
In 2021, we had no trouble getting either type of test in Puerto Maldonado. They are also available at the Lima airport.
Our enhanced protocols in laboratory or wildlife handling situations are designed to meet or exceed scientific best practices. They are drafted in conjunction with our Peruvian partners (Conservacion Amazonica), Peruvian authorities (SERFOR) and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUC) of our affiliate research universities. Broadly speaking, they will involve strict use of face shields, N95 masks, and gloves. Participants will receive detailed instructions on our procedures prior to departing for the field site.