After the spider monkey, there was a slight “lull” in the action of darting for Grace and me. We were still sent out each morning earlier than the rest of the group and came back often later in the evening. We were still “asked” to go searching for the capuchin groups, but we were usually forgotten in the forest or sent away to another group. This meant that we had 14-mile daily averages and extreme exhaustion. One day, in the morning, Grace and I came to a bench in the forest and sat down for a moment to catch our breath. Several minutes later, or possibly hours, we don’t really know, we suddenly woke. Once we groggily realized our surroundings, we burst out laughing at the thought that we’d both just fallen asleep sitting up in the middle of the forest.
|Bats in a hollow tree.|
The next day, our team had severe bad luck in finding any monkeys. Grace, Lucia, Nohely, and I marched for six hours through the forest to no avail. Grace and I did the same three mile loop four times. So the darting team left the luxury of the labs five hours later and went to the spider monkeys. After walking 200 meters, they found them. One of the girls on the team made the mistake of complaining how tired she was from that small hike and we nearly attacked her.
|Mama and baby spider monkey.|
Meg decided to try a new tactic with the spiders. We put a giant stuffed jaguar down beneath them to lure them lower. It worked, and soon there was a large group of spider monkeys alarm calling at the jaguar. For hours. Even after we covered it with a sheet, a couple of monkeys were still screaming. They almost rivaled the howler monkeys in volume.
|The first forest jaguar I saw.|
Then suddenly, Bob lifted his dart gun and shot a dart at a female spider monkey. So half of us scoured the trees for the drowsy monkey while six people held sheets underneath the canopy. For the next thirty minutes, we panicked. One of us would spot a questionable movement of a monkey, and the three sheets would go running underneath her. Then another monkey would appear to be falling from a branch, and the sheets would go running to her. In the middle of this, a father and son come wandering up the path. So Grace and I panicked thinking this is the worst possible time for a tourist group to walk by in case a monkey falls and went to go head them off only to learn it was Roland and his son Eli, one of Meg’s collaborators on this project. Eventually, we determined Bob must have missed, but those thirty minutes were the most stressful not knowing if or when a monkey would fall from the sky.
|Bob and Meg looking for the spider monkey.|
In total, we darted and GPS collared 4 spider monkeys and 2 capuchins. A much needed rest from eight straight days of intense physical exhaustion was upstaged by a sudden fever and vomiting spell on my part. Grace of course panicked and caused Hilda (the office lady) to freak out and almost knock down our door demanding to see me in case she needed to helicopter me away (not even close to needing that). She also caused all of the cooks (who are my favorite people here) to worry which resulted in them making me a Panamanian rice drink which sooths stomachs. Basically I think they just gave us a pitcher of half boiled rice in the water it had been soaking in. Not something I would recommend drinking.
12 hours after I recovered, a film crew hired by the Smithsonian to make their version of BBC Earth came out with us to film Grace’s research. And as is the common theme with every non-Panamanian we’ve met here (literally every one), they were from Colorado. It was kind of sprung upon us, so we put our sweatiest foot forward and lead them off into the forest in search of our capuchins. Not long into the jungle, Katina started screaming. She’d placed her hand on a log for balance and was stung by a bullet ant. She tried to brave it out, but the moment she said her arm was numb, we sent her back to the labs to wait the flu symptoms and further suffering to hit. Ben had managed to get sufficient footage of us “sliding gracefully through the jungle,” the capuchins feeding, and Grace taking data. We’ll make a formal announcement when the final product airs and/or is available for purchase (this is actually real. I had to sign my life over in a waiver).
I forced Grace to give me one last real day off. We woke up bright and early and headed off to the canal locks on last time to watch the morning’s load of boats pass through. We got to see five ships pass entirely through the locks and then Grace toured the museum. We took a taxi up the road to a shwarma place previously found by our father (if you read Sabbaticallie, there is a theme here). Then we saw a nice bus coming, so we hopped on only to realize that real busses require tickets instead of a random handful of change thrown at the driver. A kind woman came to our rescue and paid for us. But, we missed our stop and ended up right back at the locks. Thankfully, we were able to use our Spanish to so thoroughly confuse a taxi driver that he brought us to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort for a steal of a price. On the way, we saw our first armadillo! We didn’t stop for pictures though, which was ok since armadillos apparently have leprosy. I’m learning there is no tame creatures here anywhere. We spent the afternoon lounging at the pool and drinking lemon water before heading back to the island.
Grace and I participated in yet another resume-boosting activity this summer. A Canadian researcher was taking a weekend off and asked Grace and her trusty field assistant to check his beehives. This involved more hiking and sweating up hills. His little bee traps were essentially little planks of wood in which bees had hollowed a small nest inside. You plug the hole with your finger and then count the number of bees (and gender—which apparently is determined by a “crease” in their antenna, which are barely visible) and holes inside. Very exciting stuff here.
Our last Tuesday adventure to the City began with a thrilling talk on “novelty” in butterfly wing patterns. Basically this man talked about genetics of butterflies and completely lost me after “Hello.” Grace and I made our usual loop up Avenida Central and down into Casco Viejo. We found our way to one last rooftop meal of fish tacos, guacamole, and margaritas before heading back to the island one last time.
The peak of my time spent here was when we were in a taxi in Panama City. The driver, especially machista and creepy, was telling us how he hates monkeys and wants to kill them all. So I defended the monkeys and told him about our project studying group decision making in foraging and movement patterns in Spanish. It shows how far I’ve come when I mistook my first monkey sighting for the discovery of the Panamanian Emu.
Cumulatively, Grace and I have spent no more than 10 hours apart in the past six weeks. We share a room, share an office, do all meals, field work, and leisure activities together. The full effects of this came to light when we were walking back to Gamboa and broke into the exact same part of a random song at the exact same time. We’ve started reading each other’s minds with 100 percent accuracy and haven’t had a single thought unique from the other (this is typical anyways for us, but it’s become actually kind of scary how often this happens).
The last morning spent on BCI was not a relaxing morning of sleeping in and packing and farewells. Grace forced me into the field to the surprise of even Meg (that’s when you know you’re working too hard). It was entirely worth it though because just as we were heading off to find the monkeys, Raff (Meg’s postdoc) called us and told us they’d trapped a kinkajou. So because the one thing I hadn’t done yet on the island was run, we ran from the labs up Donato (the steepest path) to Donato 5 to see the kinkajou collaring. They’d caught an older adult female in a little trap high up in a tree. They used a rope pulley system to lower her to the ground. A similar process to the monkeys followed: her measurements were taken and a collar was put on. Except this time, Meg swabbed her armpits for 45 seconds to get armpit bacteria samples. I’m horrified for whoever has to test that one. Kinkajous are nocturnal, so they were one of the few animals remaining that I hadn’t yet seen. Not only did we see the sweet girl, we got to hold her before she went back into the trap and up the tree. Adding that to the list of things I never thought I would do. But as I told Meg, still not quite enough to convince me to change career paths and become a tropical biologist.
Now that I’m on my way home, Grace needs a new field assistant for the remainder of this field season. She’ll be accepting applications at firstname.lastname@example.org. If this blog doesn’t serve as a warning, I don’t know what will.