Primate Behavior and Space Use | Field Projects International

Primate Behavior and Space Use

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Detailed Description

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. It’s 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.

Part I: Behavioral Observation

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.

Our follows begin early in the morning, before the monkeys wake up. Using radiotelemetry, we locate a group’s sleep tree, then follow them throughout the day. Some days we break for lunch and then head out again in the afternoon; other days we take lunch with us and stay with the animals from dawn until dusk. We spend most of our time off trail, moving through thick vegetation and over any hills and ravines the monkeys might take us through. It’s probably the most intimate encounter you can have with the rainforest!

Part II: 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. But it’s been the only way to get GPS data about these very small monkeys – until now.

Starting in 2020, we’re adding a GPS tracking protocol to our observation program. We’ve designed a tiny tracking device 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. 

For students, this means a chance to get first-hand experience with emerging technologies for wildlife observation and management. Students will have the opportunity to learn about our original hardware and the software that drives it. For those students interested in the science side of wildlife observation, there will also be opportunities to get involved in data analysis and hypothesis testing at the end of the season.

Skills and Training

If you join this program, you will get experience in a wide variety of tasks that are applicable to many different fields, including but not limited to primatology. Research assistants who complete this program will be able to:

  • Identify primate species by sight and sound
  • Use telemetry devices, GPS devices, and Animal Observer software
  • Safely and efficiently move through dense rainforest vegetation
  • Navigate without trails
  •  Track primates by sight, sound, and telemetry
  • Collect and analyze behavioral data
  • Maintain a field laboratory
  • Organize and map spatial data in QGIS and Garmin BaseCamp
  • (Optional): write analytic software in R
  • (Optional): write operational software in ArduinoIDE/Java
  • (Optional): analyze spatial data in QGIS


We are currently recruiting participants with the following requirements.  If you are uncertain if you are eligible, contact us to confirm.

  • Participants must be at least 18 years of age by the time the training program begins
  • Participants must demonstrate a grounding or strong interest in zoology, biology, or anthropology
  • Previous field experience is not required
  • Participants must justify why this program is important to them, and what they hope to gain from it
  • Participants must provide a letter of recommendation from a source that can substantiate the participant’s experience and skills
  • Participants must be in good physical condition, with the capability to walk 4 miles a day
  • 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 sign waivers of liability for this project and for the field station before their participation in the project is finalized
  • Participants must be willing to maintain long hours in the field, and return to complete data entry in the evenings
  • Participants can expect flexible schedules that are dependent on the weather.
  • Participants must exhibit a willingness to adjust their 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.
Quick Info

Program dates: May 31 – August 1, 2020
Start dates: May 31, June 7, June 21, July 5, July 19, August 2, August 16
Minimum stay required: 6 weeks (in special cases we will consider 5 weeks)
Application deadline: April 1, 2020
Program fee: $3000 for 6 weeks; $450 each additional week

Primary Investigators

This project began in 2009, and the primary investigators working on it are Gustav Steinhardt, Mrinalini and Gideon Erkenswick Watsa. Spatial data collection will be in its eleventh year in 2020, with research assistant alumni working on data analyses of these projects year-round. Field managers include Daniel Nienhuis.