Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? IndiAllie and the Last Crusade.

We wake up every morning to the Indiana Jones Theme Song. Sometimes it’s the only way you’ll get out of bed at 7 am for another day in the jungle. My second method of waking myself up is to inhale half a canister of Deet, as I spray my entire body before putting on clothes. Then I layer on the Permethrin-infused jungle clothes, making sure every loose opening or hole is somehow tucked into disappearance. Then I finish with waterproof hiking boots and knee-high gators. So far a few ticks have made their way into hidden crevices of my clothing, but none have been fortunate enough to suck my blood and leave Rocky Mountain Spotted Sickness in their stead. The more amazing feat though (knock on wood) is I have yet to get a chigger bite. Chiggers are the horror most people here first talk of, and supposedly unavoidable when you trek off trail in the jungle. Which is always for us. 
My field outfit.
 Breakfast is the low point of the day. Apparently, it doesn’t matter whether you show up thirty minutes early or ten minutes late, there still will only ever be half a scope of eggs remaining for you.
HALF of the flight of stairs we march up every morning.
We stop by the office each morning to gather up our cameras, binoculars, radios, antenna, GPS, and snacks. We usually meet Nohely and Lucia here. They’re hired by Grace’s adviser, Meg, and the principal investigator on the white-faced capuchin research projects. They’re both Panamanian, and although they do speak English, I prefer to speak Spanish with them as they’re some of my only opportunity for practice, and we can tell secrets about Grace without her always understanding. 

Grace hunting for a monkey signal.

We follow three Capuchin groups: FC, Top, and VT. I’ve only met the first two, since these are the ones Grace is following for her project. Lucia picks a group in the morning to try to find and then we march along a slippery, muddy, leaf-laden path towards their general domain and hope for the best. We have a small radio antenna that we can use to pick up the signals from a radio-collared monkey in each group. Unfortunately, you have to be within a couple of hundred meters of that particular monkey anyways for the signal to work. Which usually means you’ll see or hear the monkeys almost simultaneously. Regardless, it takes under eleven seconds for my entire body to be drenched in sweat. Who knew your knees could sweat enough to leave a mark.
My sweat after 200 m of walking.
Grace’s sweat after 200 m of walking.
 Nohely and Lucia gather baseline behavioral data by doing “focals” which means they spy on one monkey for ten minutes and write down literally every action that monkey performs. Grace is gathering data on foraging habits on Attalea palm trees. Basically, she waits for a monkey to descend onto the giant fruit clump and then counts how many they touch, bite, drop, and eat and the interactions between feeding monkeys. It can get kind of chaotic when five or six monkeys pounce upon one fruit clump, or when a tree has multiple clumps, or when an area has multiple fruiting trees, or when you hear feeding but are stuck in a giant thicket of plants and can’t seem to escape. I mostly offer my assistance in attempting to determine if the trees have two clumps and tracking who leaves the tree when and in what direction. 
Feeding on an Attalea palm.
For my first day in the jungle, the monkeys were extremely cooperative and Grace and I found FC within a few minutes. Once we find the monkeys, we follow them wherever, literally wherever, they go for the next five hours. So you can have a five hour day or a ten hour day and have no idea
what to expect when you start. Unfortunately, the monkeys aren’t great at following the preexisting paths, so much of our time is spent sliding down hills, crashing into trees, and panicking when you run head on into a spider web. Sometimes, when you’re slipping down a muddy hill, you grab onto a tree for dear life and find that you’ve pulled the tree out of the ground and are just left with it in your hand. Other times, you step on a nice sturdy log only to find it completely decayed beneath your foot.
One of the giant spiders I’ve had on probably every body part.
The jungle is also home to a whole host of insects and creatures that I never dreamed existed. I thought fuzzy caterpillars, large wasps, and giant spiders in Thailand jungles were bad. I think there have to be more spiders in the jungle than plants. Also unfortunately, I am convinced the first day of spider run-ins gave me PTSD so every time anything unexpected brushes against me there is immediate crippling panic. The ant people tell me that there’s an ant species whose bite is akin to a bullet. Sometimes you wake up and walk outside your door and the first thing you see is a tarantula the size of a dinner plate. Other times, you’re sitting in the office and panic when a giant leaf-like grasshopper hits the window and starts doing what can only be a mating dance towards you.
Spider outside the kitchen eating a giant cicada.

My favorite animal. A gudi.
A poison dart frog.
A small deer.

A beetle.
A bug.
A giant tree.
Bravo Luis. “Gordo.” Alpha male of FC.

The next day however, we spent three and a half hours walking through the jungle, unable to detect any of the groups, and finally ran into FC just as our time ran out and we had to head back to the labs. That day was instead full of other wildlife encounters. We saw spider monkeys, howler monkeys, coatis, agudis, woodpeckers, guans, a great tinamou, and an anteater. Howlers are the most common and easy monkey to find, as you can hear them across the island. They also have an attitude and maliciously aim and/or throw their poop at your head, so we spent some of this day avoiding that.

On Wednesday, we had another encounter with poop. We were following Top, and one of the female monkeys, Uma, left a nice sample high up in a tree. So Grace and I repeatedly ran into the tree until some of the sample fell to the ground. Lucia gathered it for testing.
On Thursday, we had our most exciting poop encounter yet. The morning began innocently with a routine hour of data collection, when suddenly, a monkey ran through a tree above Grace and sprayed her with its poop. She was quite nicely, evenly, and fully covered in monkey poop. Unfortunately we weren’t able to take a sample.
Grace and Lucia collecting Uma’s poop sample.
Grace collecting a poop sample in a different way.
Grace protecting herself from poop.
Rainstorms in the forest are a bizarre phenomenon. You can hear torrential downpours happening all around you, but there’s about a twenty minute delay before the rain reaches the rainforest floor. The most fun thing about the rain is that the next day you go out in the jungle, eight million more leaves will be on the ground covering all sorts of slippery rocks and roots and gaping holes in the ground, so you have to been even more careful where you dare step. 
A small snake.
We’ve had two snake encounters so far. One was outside our room, and we just saw the tail slither harmlessly up the hill. The other was when Grace stepped up on a giant log, I looked down and saw a small vine snake right next to her boot. Fortunately, she hadn’t bothered it and it looked small and unpoisonous. But honestly, I have no clue how to identify a poisonous snake here. A small sign warning us about poisonous snakes greats us every day as we leave our room but doesn’t say much. I’m just hoping I don’t accidentally grab a vine for support and end up with a snake in my hand. 
Grace’s hand lens.
After getting back from our jungle treks, all I want to do was dive in the lake and never leave. But apparently you can’t do that either because the lake is infested with crocodiles. Might have to risk that if it gets any hotter.
As soon as we get back from the jungle, we strip down and inspect for ticks, shower, and then eat our late lunch. Most afternoons you can find a group of students in hammocks on the balcony that overlooks Lake Gatun, relaxing, and watching ships go through the canal. One calm afternoon of data entering (Grace) and hammock reading (me) was spoiled by a sudden spluttering and Grace panicking. She’d just opened a Snickers bar and immediately got a mouthful of ants. Remind me to never eat anything here ever. 
Our afternoon hammocks on the balcony overlooking Lake Gatun.
 On Tuesdays, we get to go into the City for scientific seminars. Attendance at these seminars was not outlined in my job description, so instead Grace and I found ourselves going to the mall to watch the Minion Movie. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Much to Grace’s chagrin and my excitement, the movie was only shown in Spanish. Which means under ten sentences are translated since Minions speak Minion anyways. Hilarious. We had time for fish market ceviche then met up with the group at a Mexican restaurant for margaritas and tacos on the rooftop terrace. The evening ends with a mad rush at the grocery store for alcohol and chocolate by all the students and large amounts of Cheetos for Grace and me. 
The people on the island are their own group of interesting. Everyone does such vastly different research, and a lot of people have been here for years, watching the evolution of research and researchers happening. While everyone’s interests are so foreign and opposite of my own, it’s actually really fun listening to people panic about their ant colonies or seedlings or fig wasps and to hear the variety of accents telling jungle stories. It’s nice to have a small community of people who are the only ones in the world who can truly understand the weirdness, horrors, and hilarity of life on Barro Colorado Island. And even though everyone says you adapt to the humidity and heat after a few days, Grace and I are definitely still the sweatiest people here.

Dinner is a communal event and the most social part of the day (unless, like Grace, you consider watching the monkeys a social activity). Grace and I happen to love the food on the island (save breakfast) and don’t understand why everyone complains so much. The cooks are great too, there are four of them and they’re all incredibly friendly and love to talk to the visitors.
The days end with a return to our luxuriously air-conditioned room and a bedtime story from the cockroach under my bed.
It’s already been over a week here. And I found myself excited to go into the jungle today. Maybe this isn’t so bad. Or maybe I already have bush madness…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s