Training Program: Primate Monitoring



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Quick Facts

Program Overview and History

Since 2009, the smallest rainforest primates at EBLA have been monitored in a unique long-term program spanning 17 social groups, over 200 unique animals, and two species: the saddleback tamarin (Leontocebus weddelli) and the emperor tamarin (Saguinus imperator). At the EBLA, they coexist with 9 other primates, each in its own genus. 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 year, this program will encompass three main research themes:

  1. Annual tamarin health screening
  2. Reproductive biology in the context of cooperative breeding 
  3. Movement ecology in the context of three, rather than two, dimensions.

Left: Saguinus imperator, Right: Leontocebus weddelli (Photos by Ishaan Raghunandan)

The Annual Tamarin Health Survey

Each year, we conduct a comprehensive health screening of each tamarin in the study population of ~15 groups. (The only year we have ever missed since 2009 is 2020!) Our primate mark-recapture program at this site is unique in that it does not disturb habituation to the observer. Groups voluntarily enter baited traps placed in locations never revealed to the public. We do not coerce them in any way or tranquilize them using darts. Once captured, each group is processed as a whole using safe, verified protocols and released directly at the capture site on the same day within a few hours of capture. Each animal receives a health check, including dental screening, and samples are collected for mercury testing, disease screening, and genotyping for relatedness to other individuals. In addition to the invaluable information gleaned about the health of these primate populations, we are also able to provide each group with GPS collars (see Conservation Technology program), and each individual with a temporary ID tag that drops off within a couple of months.

This unique training program provides a singular opportunity for individuals with an interest in wildlife monitoring, zoology, or veterinary science to gain practical skills and experience that are not easy to come by.

All of this work is sanctioned by the Amazon Conservation Association, the Animal Care Committee of Washington University in St. Louis, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Perú.

Tamarin Reproductive Biology

Reproductive variation is the currency of evolution, with individuals who produce more offspring having higher chances of passing on particular characteristics. But what determines who can reproduce, and why do we see reproduction regularly skewed toward particular individuals? In tamarins and other callitrichine primates, these questions are particularly perplexing because, while multiple females may live in a group, reproductive success is generally limited to a single primary breeding female. This female gives birth to twins that are cared for by other members of the group (termed cooperative breeding). However, most notably, the other females in the group almost never reproduce.

Captive studies suggest that this suppression of reproduction occurs via physiological means, where secondary females experience delayed development or temporary pauses in ovarian cycling in response to the sight or scent of the primary breeding female or in groups where the only available breeding males are closely related. In the wild, though, the story is far more complex and intriguing.

Group members are more widely dispersed and their home ranges overlap extensively with other groups, and contrary to what’s been found in captivity, the few studies on wild female reproductive physiology show that secondary breeders are experiencing regular ovarian cycles. Nevertheless, some of them still do not reproduce, and the system of a single primary breeding female remains in most groups. At EBLA, we find saddleback tamarins occasionally form groups with multiple breeding females, but emperor tamarins never do.

What is happening in these natural systems? Through what behavioral or physiological mechanisms does this extreme variation in female reproductive success persist, and why? Answering these questions is key to understanding not only the basic dynamics of callitrichine reproduction, but the fundamental element driving callitrichine evolution.

To this end, this project uses the following field biology methods to answer these questions. We will:

  1. Assist with the annual mark-recapture program for 15+ groups across 2 tamarin species.
  2. Collect biological samples from these animals for endocrinology (hormone studies) to investigate female reproductive physiology
  3. Track wild primates to record behavior and monitor their hormone levels
  4. Record behavior to investigate the dynamics between females within and between groups

Tamarin Movement Ecology

Social groups function by sticking together, so one of their most basic functions is to make collective decisions about where to go and how to get there. This is an area that combines two highly active fields of research: movement ecology and social behavior. By stitching them together, we hope to understand how social dynamics influence (and are influenced by) group movement.

Traditionally, primatologists have studied movement ecology by following primate groups and directly observing their behavior. For small primates like tamarins, this is still the main way we get information on movement. It’s challenging work due to their small size and highly arboreal habits, but it’s the only way to get data on feeding, social behavior, predation, and other ecologically and evolutionarily significant events.

GPS Tracking

In the past, we’ve collected spatial information from handheld GPS trackers, which give us a good sense for the group’s overall space use (home range size, distance traveled per day, etc.), but ultimately a handheld GPS unit tells you where the observer has gone, not where the animals have gone. Nevertheless, this has been the only way to get GPS data about these very small monkeys – until now.

Starting in 2021, we’re adding a GPS tracking protocol to our observation program. We’ve designed a tiny tracking device we call a Biscuit that can fit on a tamarin, and this year we plan to put it into operation. In combination with the behavioral data collection, the trackers will give us unprecedented detail on movement patterns, allowing us to track space use not only at the group level, but also at the individual level. We’ll be able to observe how individual movements contribute to the overall movement of the group.

In combination with high-resolution remote sensing data, the GPS tracks will also tell us about the tamarins’ microhabitat selection. We can now begin to ask questions about why tamarins are found in certain forest patches but not others, as well as what kinds of vegetation structure they prefer for high-value activities like sleeping and foraging.

This project uses the following methods to study movement ecology. We will:

  1. Use radiotelemetry to locate a group’s sleep tree at the end and beginning of each day
  2. Track tamarin groups from sleep trees via full and half-day follows
  3. Spend most of our time off trail, moving through thick vegetation and over any hills and ravines the monkeys might take us through.
  4. Use custom-built GPS collars to track several individuals in each group, and validate the accuracy of these data with traditional GPS monitoring
  5. Use a LoRa communications network to collate all automated GPS locations for animals to monitor all 15 groups simultaneously.

Training and Skills 

By the end of this program, you will have gained a number of skills essential to the study of animal behavior (especially primates) and non-invasive hormone monitoring. These include the ability to:

Tamarin Handling:

    • Conduct a primate handling session including blood draws, morphometric monitoring, monitoring of animals under anesthesia, and safe release
    • Appropriately restrain and handle wild primates with proper technique and PPE
    • Record data on animal weight, TPRs (temperature, pulse and respiration), injuries, dentition, and much more.
    • Collect biological samples such as feces, urine, hair and blood from each animal
    • Construct and organize animal processing kits and in-situ animal processing tents
    • Determine sex and appropriate age of individuals by morphological characters

Tamarin Tracking:

      • Identify primate species by sight and sound
      • Comfortably and safely work and move on and off trail systems in a Neotropical rainforest
      • Track primates by sight, sound, radio telemetry, and GPS devices
      • Conduct full-day behavioral follows of wild primates using focal, scan, and ad-libitum data sampling methods recorded on Animal Observer software

Tamarin Reproductive Biology:

    • Collect and process field-collected fecal and urine samples, including steroid hormone extractions in a field laboratory
    • Store and process biological samples for downstream analyses of parasitology and reproductive physiology

Data Analysis:

    • Clean and organize data for a relational database system
    • Organize and project spatial data in QGIS and Garmin BaseCamp
    • (Optional): write analytic software in R
    • (Optional): analyze spatial data in QGIS

Research assistants will also have the opportunity to contribute to publications that result from this research. As with other FPI projects, we do not give co-authorship for collecting data alone, but we do welcome students interested in data analyses for potential future publications.

We are currently recruiting participants with the following requirements. If you are uncertain if you are eligible, don’t rule out the program – please contact us to confirm first!

Minimum Requirements:

  • You must be at least 18 years of age by the time the training program begins (no upper age-limit)
  • A letter of recommendation from a source that can substantiate the participant’s experience and skills
  • A vaccine to COVID-19 (see FAQ below for details)
  • Participants must be in good physical condition, with the capability to walk 4 miles a day
  • Due to the nature of the work and weather constraints, participants must be willing to be flexible about their weekly and daily schedules

Preferred Skills:

  • Participants must demonstrate a grounding or strong interest in animal monitoring and biology
  • Previous field experience is not required, but previous behavioral research experience is a plus
  • Participants will not be discriminated against for medical conditions they might have, if we determine that being on this project will not pose an immediate risk to their health
  • Participants must be willing to maintain long hours in the field, and return to complete data entry in the evenings.
  • Sometimes we wait and are unsuccessful – this is the nature of the work. Participants must demonstrate patience
  • Participants must be reliable – when a team is assigned to work with a group of animals, days of planning go into the execution of the protocol. Carelessness and tardiness on the part of the participant could jeopardize the entire project.
  • Participants must exhibit a willingness to adjust your schedule to primate daily activity patterns. This can require waking up early, sometimes by 4 or 5 am, and going to bed early, 8 or 9 pm.

Who Should Join our Field Team?

  • Those with a strong interest in primates, including those in anthropology or biology fields of study
  • Those who want handling experience but also experience tracking wild primates
  • Those who want to work on a modern program with significant improvements in various conservation technologies.

 

The People Involved

The primate monitoring program was initiated by Dr. Mrinalini Watsa with a primary interest in studying genetic chimerism and reproductive biology for her doctoral dissertation. In 2012, Dr. Gideon Erkenswick formally joined the effort to study tamarin parasite ecology, also for his doctoral dissertation.

For 2021, Rachel Voyt from the University of Texas at Austin will be leading investigations into tamarin reproductive biology, while Gustav Steinhardt will head investigations into tamarin movement ecology using customized GPS technology in collaboration with Ishaan Raghunandan.

Apart from principal investigators, field managers, and research assistants, this program also includes wildlife veterinarians. In recent years, these have included Drs. Jesus Lescano, Ana Peralta, Giancarlo Inga, and KC Hill. Combined, our team has decades of direct experience working with tropical wildlife and conducting behavioral research. 

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!

All start dates could be delayed 2-4 weeks if it is significantly more likely that participants will be able to get vaccines by that time. This decision will be made in the Spring, with final dates decided April 15. 

DO NOT buy flights until April 16 and the program dates are confirmed.

We will not take more than 1 week’s reservation fee at the time of recruitment.

*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.

Learn more about FPI and COVID-19 HERE.

While you may not yet be eligible as a priority group to get the COVID-19 vaccine, the rollout is accelerating with President Biden recently announcing availability for all adults by the end of May. Meanwhile, each state has its own plan for who should get vaccinated first. Eventually, you will be able to get one through your doctor’s office or local pharmacy as you would a flu shot. 

 
We recommend checking with your local health department for current eligibility where you live. The Vaccine Finder website is also an excellent resource for finding vaccination locations, and the NYT has this map to show information by state. Also remember that with Johnson & Johnson collaborating with Merck to produce their single dose vaccine (which was only recently approved), the availability will continue to increase. 

In the end, our programs simply don’t happen without our participants. If you are unable to get vaccinated in your state before your start date, we can accommodate by moving your start later so you will be able to undertake this travel safely. This is an ongoing conversation, and we want to help rather than exclude anyone. We know that the uncertainty is hard to live with –for both you and for us– but we will figure this out together.

To assist you, we will start offering bi-weekly office hours to discuss vaccines, travel planning, and program preparation. The dates are as follows. 

Wednesday, March 10th at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
Wednesday, March 24th at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
Wednesday April 7th at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
Wednesday, April 21nd at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
Wednesday, May 5th at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
Wednesday, May 19th at 1:30pm-2:00pm Pacific Time
 
Email info(at)fieldprojects.org to get the Zoom meeting link.

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.

If a participant cancels: 
 
Because we block your spot and potentially reject other applicants based on your being on the team, cancellations can affect team recruitment quite strongly. Nevertheless, we do recognize that circumstances sometimes demand cancellations – so we do the best that we can, given the restrictions we are under. 
 

Canceling for reasons not related to COVID-19: 

  • 30 days or more before your start date: 45% refunded
  • Less than 30 days from your start date: no refund is possible
If you have extenuating circumstances, or applied closer than 30 days to your start date, please contact us. 
 

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. 
PLEASE NOTE: Those canceling due to COVID-19 will be asked to provide documentation or a doctor’s note

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 our research assistants. 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 (3- to 6-week commitments). These are firm because each research assistant 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 – in fact, we really do recommend and love it when you do!

Our courses have fewer enrollment requirements, and we strongly encourage anyone to apply. The research assistantships are more competitive, and there are fewer positions available.

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 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. 

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 full 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.

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, there are 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 strongly suggest that participants bring their own thermometers in their first-aid kits, and check themselves daily.

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.

Currently, we recommend getting a molecular test at a clinic in Lima (molecular tests are currently not available in Puerto Maldonado, only rapid antigen tests). We recommend getting a molecular COVID test at UniLabs, located in Miraflores (about a 35 minute drive from the airport in Lima). You must purchase the test online, then they send you an e-ticket for confirmation. These tests cost around 145 soles (~$40), and the results should arrive within 12 hours. Plan on staying in Lima for one night  to assure you get test results in time for your flight.

The field station’s safety protocols apply to everybody: staff, researchers, guests, and visitors. 

For every new person arriving at the field station, the science director will go over the COVID-protocol with them personally and explain to them about the mandatory use of face masks, hand sanitizer, table seating, and social distancing. There are planned spaces equipped for maximum distance between people. 

People living or travelling together in a group for more than 14 days can 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 practices “cuarentena laboral.” This means that there are separate working areas, and you will be expected to avoid using workspaces and equipment that is designated for other individuals or groups. 

Regarding the 14-day quarantine for all visitors in Peru, travellers are able to quarantine at their final destination if they get there within 24 hours after landing in Lima. The field station where we work can serve as this site, as they meet all government-approved COVID protocols, and have the capacity to maintain social distance between all visitors.

Our Peruvian partners who operate the field station can optionally send an additional ‘letter of invitation’ in Spanish, to be shown at customs, which states that the field station will serve as a quarantine location. To receive this letter, let us know well in advance. They can personalize the letter, send it to you electronically, then you can print it at home before travelling.

Negative tests are not 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 are strongly pushing for all participants to get vaccinated. 

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 a detailed procedures pamphlet prior to departing for the field site, and may be required to complete a short online training on our website.

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