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High Moon Over the Amazon: The Quest for the Monkeys of the Night

In total darkness in the dripping rain forest of Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park, the accomplished primatologist Patricia Chapple Wright skipped along a rough trail she’d prepared for us jungle neophytes to explore the nocturnal world of lemurs, frogs, and many other species new and strange to us. While I fretted about snakes and leeches I had encountered several times in the forest earlier that day, Pat was completely at home in the forbidding wilderness.

highmoonovertheam_custom-4271eb0dfe684836fbd4f41399c4beb764590df2-s2-c85Earlier, with the green glow of the sun shining through a billion leaves to light the way, I had sloshed along a muddy track to see Pat’s famous lemurs. It was exhilarating to get so close to a pair of golden bamboo lemurs, a species unknown to science until she found them in this forest. And what a privilege it was to be guided personally by the famous primatologist who had first identified them. But even by day Ranomafana was treacherous for a novice like me. In an effort to avoid stepping on a small snake I slipped down a slope and wrenched my ankle. When I rolled up my jeans to inspect the damage I found my lower leg festooned with leeches greedily ingesting my blood. Just how high had they slithered up my pant leg, I wondered in growing fright.

Now during the Ranomafana night walk, most of us battled to find our footing along the muddy path, desperate to make it back safely to our cabins without tripping. But not Pat. She scampered up and down the trail, shining her flashlight into the trees, pointing out amphibians, reptiles and other denizens of the dark forest.

Reading Pat’s new book, High Noon Over the Amazon, I understand how it is that she is so comfortable not only in a forest, but how she gets around so easily in that forest at night: She spent her early career as a primatologist learning to track and understand the elusive owl monkey, Aotus, deep in the back jungle of Amazonian Peru. Most of that work had to be done in the dark, when the owl monkey is out and about.

Pat became a pioneer of tracking monkeys at night, following them on the ground as they traversed their arboreal byways from sleep trees to various feeding grounds. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, as she quickly discovered when she encountered a deadly nocturnal snake dangling from a bough in her path, causing her to tumble in fright down an embankment and become hopelessly lost. But through sheer persistence Pat perfected the technique, becoming the first researcher to describe wild owl monkey behavior not previously documented. She also became adept at moving around the most impenetrable jungle in the dark.

By the time I met Pat Wright, she was a highly respected scientist, a distinguished member of National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE), and the discoverer of the golden bamboo lemur. People at National Geographic spoke of her in reverential tones, comparing her work with lemurs to the chimpanzee work of Jane Goodall and the gorilla work of Dian Fossey. I’ve seen Pat in the National Geographic board room, making the case to the CRE to fund the work of a budding primatologist in some far off forest. And I’ve been with her on those jungle walks by day and night at several locations in Madagascar and other parts of the planet, sharing her wonder and excitement at every plant and animal, and learning from her much about the natural world.

Imagine then my delight to read Pat’s stories of her early career in her new book. It’s a page-turner of a yarn, from the moment she meets her first owl monkey in a New York pet shop and has an impulse to acquire one as a pet. This love-at-first-sight encounter with the charismatic primate takes Pat and her young daughter to a remote research station in Peru where she slowly uncovers the secrets of the monkeys of the night. Some of the more riveting experiences along the way include a strange tale of three naked Indian women trying to entice Pat and other river travelers ashore. They resist the sirens, but Pat later learns that the three strange women are grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter who ambush anyone who accepts their invitation to visit them. Other adventures in the jungle include scurrying out the way of  army ants that swarm into a research station to consume in an hour or so the supplies supposed to feed the scientists for months, a head-on encounter with a jaguar, and a stampede into the camp of peccaries and other animals fleeing a flooding river. Pat’s jungle world is anything but routine.

I asked Pat to field a few questions for this blog post. Readers should feel free to send questions of their own in the comments section below.

You made some startling discoveries about owl monkeys during your research. What were the most important?

Photo by Charles Janson courtesy of Patricia Wright.
Photo by Charles Janson courtesy of Patricia Wright.

Firstly, owl monkeys have extensive father-care, with dads carrying babies on their backs that can weigh up to half the dad’s weight. Quite a feat when jumping through the trees. But when predators chase down the families, Dad can save his offspring’s life, because Mom, energetically speaking, couldn’t produce milk for such a big infant — and carry him and run fast enough to escape predators. So I learned about the dynamics of this father-care system in the wild.

Secondly, there is only one type of monkey that is night-active and that is the owl monkey. I found out there are two major advantages to night life in the jungle: avoiding the main monkey predators, hawks and eagles who only hunt during the day (jungle owls are too small to eat owl monkeys), and avoiding competition for food with other types of monkeys. In most jungles ten or twelve species of monkeys are eating fruits and competing for fruits during the day, but when owl monkeys feed at night, only their group eats fruits in that territory (they can eat all they want and not get chased out of the trees by all those other kinds of monkeys). In other words, interference competition is reduced.

Were there any times of great despair in the field, when you thought this might not be the life for you?

I’ve always loved being in the forest, and living in the tropical rain forest is wonderful. But that time I saw a jaguar face to face in the middle of the night, I really was scared as well as awestruck.

Despair only came when I was living in a tent and it had been raining heavily for fifteen days in a row and I didn’t have ANY dry clothes and I couldn’t get a fire started to cook my rice and beans. That was discouraging.

What was the most exciting discovery you have made?

Seeing an owl monkey in the wild for the first time was amazing, but the most exciting discovery was the first time seeing the golden bamboo lemur in Madagascar. That lemur was a new species to science.

 

Photo graph of Patricia Wright with owl monkey by James Wright courtesy of Patricia Wright.
Photograph of Patricia Wright with owl monkey by James Wright courtesy of Patricia Wright.

 

You’ve never lost your sense of wonder and excitement about the forest and its species. Why is that?

There is so much to learn every day, even after all these years. The rain forest is a very exciting place, filled with surprises.

I noted in your book that National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration turned down your application for a research grant because you did not have a PhD. But you rose to the very top of your field and you were invited by National Geographic to serve two terms on the CRE, helping fund hundreds of grants to deserving scientists. What was some of the most significant primate work funded by the CRE during your tenure on the committee?

CRE funded Jill Pruetz to begin the first study of chimps living in the savannah. She habituated them with Nat Geo funds and then found out they hunted bush babies and used tools (wooden sticks which they shaped into spears) and speared them in tree holes and ate them. [Read the National Geographic article about this research: Almost Human.]

We also funded:

— Crickette Sanz who set up the first video surveillance of unhabituated chimps in Congo and published the videos embedded in a American Naturalist scientific article. [National Geographic: The Truth About Chimps.]

— A study of health issues in Lemur catta in Madagascar that found that their teeth wear out in old age (Michelle Sauther and Frank Cuozzo).

— Many scientific expeditions into remote areas of Madagascar where new species of lemurs were discovered and described (Ed Louis, Mitch Irwin and other researchers).

There were many more…

What are you working on now, and what research would you most like to do in the balance of your career?
Conservation of lemurs/forests in Madagascar is one of my prime goals. Right now Centre ValBio is working to make a new protected area in a pristine forest just north of Ranomafana National Park.

I am working on further development of Centre ValBio, a world class research station next to the rainforest integrating laboratory research on molecular biology, nutrition, infectious disease and parasitology with studies of wild lemurs, humans and other biodiversity. We will have high-speed internet at the end of November to be able to access and send large databases, and improve our abilities to do modern science. This is a rain forest research station with a heart, as we work closely with village-development improving health, education and economics.

Photo of Patricia Wright courtesy of Patricia Wright.
Photo of Patricia Wright courtesy of Patricia Wright.

Currently I am working on research on populations of rain forest mouse lemurs, concentrating on their parasites, their genetics and how they deal with old age in the wild. Mouse lemurs are the only primates other than humans who in old age develop plaques and tangles in their brain (Alzheimer’s), at least in captivity. However, we haven’t seen Alzheimer’s in any wild mouse lemur yet, even though we have documented they live ten years in the wild.

I am continuing my 27-year study of the behavioral ecology and demography of a population of rain forest sifakas in Madagascar and I continue to document new information including female hostile take-overs of groups, lethal aggression of one adult male of another adult male, and predation events by fossa, a mountain lion-like mongoose predator of lemurs. This study has shown that the 12-pound sifaka females can live up to 32 years in the wild.

My graduate students and I are beginning to look at the microbiomes (communities of bacteria) of the guts of the 15 species of lemurs living together in one forest, and that will take a few years of research.

I am working with Tom Gillespie and Matthew Bonds on the interface of diseases among wild populations of lemurs, carnivores and rodents in the forest and villages (humans, livestock and pests like invasive rats) to better understand infectious disease in Madagascar and its relationship to poverty in these villages.

I will continue to look at questions of rain forest ecology and the roles lemurs play in the dynamics of the Malagasy rain forest.

You’ve obviously seen a lot of changes in the natural world over your career? What gives you the most despair? What gives you the most hope?

Yes, I have seen thousands of acres of rain forest cut down and burned each year without being allowed to regenerate and that is discouraging. Its very sad to see the hunting of lemurs drive populations to local extinction in some areas of Madagascar.

Most hopeful sign?  Twenty years ago we planted into degraded habitat twelve species of rain forest trees from seeds passed through lemur digestive systems.   These trees are now 18 meters tall and bearing fruits. This means that restoration ecology at some level can work even in Madagascar rain forest. Working with the Malagasy human communities to do restoration and protection is very hopeful.

You’re a talented storyteller. Is it something that comes to easy to you — and are there plans for more books?

Currently I’m working on a book about my expeditions and discoveries in Madagascar, and hope to have it ready in the spring of 2014. I’ve been trained to write scientific articles, and writing the stories behind the science is a new experience. I’ve led an exciting life and its fun to share those stories.

Patricia Chapple Wright, PhD is an accomplished American primatologist, anthropologist, and conservationist. Considered to be one of the world’s foremost expert on lemurs, Wright is best known for her 26-year study of social and family interactions of wild lemurs in Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar. She is the founder of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments (ICTE) and Centre ValBio (CVB).  Wright has worked extensively on conservation. In the late 1980s she spearheaded an integrated conservation and development project that, in 1991, led to the establishment of Ranomafana National Park. Read more about Patricia Wright on her website. Her book High Moon Over the Amazon may be ordered here.