Wednesday, 3 July 2013

You Can Dance If You Want To... You Can Leave Your Plastic Penis Behind

It has been many a days since I've last updated thee about the monkeys or "going ons" at the base, so i'll fill you in.

Two weeks ago, six of us set off to Asuncion (the capital) to present our projects to Robert Owen, a retired, but world renowned mammal specialist who now runs an English program under the CCPA. Before getting on the bus to Asuncion, Annie and I were waiting outside the bus when a man stopped beside us with a little cooler on wheels and started packing a polystyrene cup with ice cream. Annie and I, who obviously looked out of place, stared at the ice cream and thought, "Well it sure has been awhile hasn't it" and we asked the man if we can also have some. He gave us that exact cup he was filling up beside us for a dollar and merrily went on his way. It then occurred to me that no one around the man had asked him for ice cream and him packing a cup full of ice cream beside these dirty and homeless looking foreigners was a surefire strategy to sell ice-cream. The clever old man car-salesmanned us without even saying a word.

To be honest,  I really don't mind and I'm glad  my buck went into the local economy, but the ice cream absolutely sucked. It tasted like medicine with the texture of sand, and after passing it around the group and pawning it off to those who haven't had an unforgiving taste yet, the cup of "clever rouse" flavored ice cream found its home in a garbage bag.
After presenting in front of Robert Owen and his English classes for the 2 nights we were in Asuncion we rewarded ourselves with some much longed-for grub. When staying at a field site like the one we are at in Laguna Blanca, there is maybe about 7 meals that rotate throughout the months. Now I'm not complaining, but let's just say the 2 day presentation/food vacation was greatly appreciated.

Upon our return I was quite excited to go and monkey hunt as well as do my vegetative sampling, but "winter was coming". For the next 8 days it was frigid and rainy, so most activity was immobilized. Reading books in a cozy nest in front of a space heater suited me quite nicely for a few days until the power went out. For 3 days there was no electricity, no heat, no hot water, no escape from the cold damp environment.
 On the bright side, we went out on 1 monkey hunt and found 3 howler monkeys in our forest that have not been seen in the area for 15 years. With forest destruction constantly on the rise, one of our theories suggests that these guys could have possibly moved in as a result of their own forest being disturbed. If this proves true, it could be quite interesting studying the dynamics of a primate refugee camp.

Back to the 8 day winter. We ended up making a fire on our porch and drinking hot mulled wine while watching Game of Thrones through the flames, which I would vote as one of the very best ways to see and hear "Hodor!".

A few nights later, it was San Juan day, which is St. John's day and also the shortest day of the year. This holiday festival... confuses me to say the least. When asking what sorts of things they do during this celebration, we were told that someone gets naked, covers their body with mud and crawls on all 4 to mimic a pig and tries to get unsuspecting victims pants dirty by brushing up against them. Doesn't sound too bad right?

Oh and they also make stuffed manikins or effigies that are supposed to represent the Jews that condemned Jesus to death;  and they set them on fire...

So let me give you all a quick post World War 2 history lesson of Paraguay. After World War 2 lots of Nazis that were wanted for war crimes found their way over to South America and many of them including the torturous Dr. Mengele found home in Paraguay. Why? Because there were already some communities of German Mennonites (Awmish) established in the region from 1887.

So this begs the question, does the celebration of burning Jewish effigies have anything to do with a history of housing Nazis? Perhaps.

Luckily I think it was too wet for them to burn Jewish effigies at the festival so I didn't witness that odd custom, but I was definitely confused by some of the other events.
Boys dancing in masks with each other, some of them wearing fake penises (I believe the plural is dildae) . And the symbolism behind this? The locals just say "Its Tradition".

So the guy on the right has a fake penis that he's using to manipulate the other gentleman's skirt.

After the odd dancing and a brief dance competition the MC of the festival was talking to our group and asked if anybody played guitar and wanted to play on stage. In a slightly inebriated state I accepted the  challenge/opportunity and went up on stage. I ended up playing Sublime's "What I got", which i thought sounded OK. At the end of my song I looked around and saw about 100 blank stares; only my 5 gringo comrades were clapping. I thought  that this was quite odd and maybe they just didn't like the music, which is alright. So I convinced the MC guy to play one of his Spanish folk songs as I held the microphone up for him. He finished a pretty damn good performance and again, no clapping or reaction whatsoever.

As odd as it all was, I don't question this confusing night anymore, I think after the explanation of burning Jewish effigies and Strap-on Salsa dancing, I can safely say "hey, its tradition". 

Monday, 10 June 2013


can be an unpleasant way to spend 1/7th of your life. It turns out that this is more true for some than for others. A good friend of mine named JP had an exceptionally crappy time this last Monday when it was discovered that he had  not one, but two Botfly larvae in his head.

Botflies are these really big flies that plant their eggs onto mosquitoes and then the mosquitoes, quite unpleasantly but unknowingly, plant these eggs inside of you (see secondary host). If you recognize the bump that starts to form after one of these transactions, removing them is no worse than popping a zit. Unfortunately for JP, this was not the case.

About five weeks ago JP was complaining that he had a bump on his head from a presumed scratch or spider bite, and in following with John Lennon's lyrical advice, he 'Let it Be'. Little did he know that his head would become an incubation site turned prime real estate for the Botfly offspring. The most unlucky part of it all is that getting stung by a mosquito with Botfly eggs is not at all common for the area that we are in, so much so that the local forest guards have only ever seen one person become an unsuspecting maternity ward for the Botfly.

This past Monday, JP had an impromptu surgical extraction performed by our primatologist Becca. I was fortunately unfortunate enough to position myself behind the camera for this procedure and now have this video to share with you.

I must warn you, it is grim, it is gruesome, and it might make you a little sick. Editing this clip was slightly repulsive, but I did it for you guys... because I care... and because I like the thought of making you squirm from thousands of kilometers away.

[Not Safe for Work or Life]

And if you want to see a photo of the larvae that was extracted/shot out of his head...

Those are teeth. An impeccable resemblance to a Jabba the Hutt/Dracula hybrid 

The astrological 'sciences' deem Mondays as horrible because the rotational speed of Neptune in line with the moons of Saturn then create a beam of annoyance and frustration right at the earth and has therefore proved that Mondays are not distasteful just because they are placed directly after an enjoyable weekend.

I on the other hand... (have five fingers)

did have the best monkey day so far on that very same Monday. I ended up trekking through the forest and found the group of eight individuals. I moved very slowly and began to spark their curiosity as they kept perching from branches and looking at me for almost an hour. When they would watch me from a little farther away I would hide myself and they would move closer to get a better look.

Now knowing what area they were in, I went out that night and located their sleeping tree quite quickly. They weren't pleased to see me, so I only stayed a little while. I was however fortunate enough to get this footage.

Check out some other Adventures in Research at my friend Yev's Blog:

Monday, 27 May 2013

Mono Isn't Just a Trigger-Happy Sickness I Had in Highschool

It's also the Spanish word for monkey. The monkeys we have over here at Laguna Blanca are the Black Striped Capuchins. In the 400 hectares of Atlantic forest here there is only two groups of these monkeys remaining. The first group is composed of 8 individuals including the dominant male named "Chief", the grim and hostile sub-adult "Damion" and 5 other monkeys whose sex has not yet been determined, but includes a mother with a 4 month old infant on her back, which due to the unknown sex of the little mono, we have named "Bowie". The other group is composed of 2 lone males.

I'm going to quickly run you guys through the study that I'm doing. Don't worry it'll be quick. How quick? Very quick. Well, on with it. On with what?

It was a long night... 

I'll leave it at that...

So there is little known about these monkeys except that they do exist, they are scared of us (for now) and following them is seriously difficult.  My study is focusing on where their sleeping trees are located in 400 hectares of forest and whether the different fruiting trees in the vicinity have an effect on which sleeping trees they choose. So let me give you a breakdown of an average monkey scouting day.

Wake up at 5 am, drink instant coffee (a beverage I do not wish on my enemies) maybe have an egg and a piece of toast. Go out into the forest and try your luck wandering thick and overgrown trails around the areas that you last saw the monkeys. If you have ever played horseshoes and had a horseshoe thrown and wedged into your torso that doctors could not remove, than you might be lucky enough to stumble across their sleeping tree just like that, but this morning hunt is mostly just to get an idea of what region of the forest they're in.

After Lunch you go out again, whether you saw them in the morning or not. You keep trying to find them.
 At this point I have to tell you guys the 3 rules of monkey hunting in the Atlantic forest.

1. Watch every place you plant your foot.
Coral snakes, vipers, rattlesnakes really like basking on open trails at dawn and would really     hate for you to plant your new hiking boot treads on their scales. You wouldn't be a fan of this either; Venom is not pleasant. The coral snake has no anti-venom and 80% of those who get nabbed, die. Luckily for us, they are small and can only really get their teeth around a finger or a toe, so if you ever play  rock paper scissors with a coral snake, always choose rock.

2. Bring a machete or a stick.

Machete's are obviously useful if the trails are overgrown, but if you're walking trails you know are cleared a simple stick becomes your best friend. As you walk through tight trails you don't see the thinly spun webs of lies all along this trail and it is utterly unpleasant to walk into these webs, have them stick to your face and hair, at the same time wonder how big the spider was that made the web, whether it is now inhabiting your being, asking yourself why you're here and why you didn't bring a stick with you to wave in front of your face as you walk. All after an astonishingly bad cup of instant coffee.

3. You'll hear them before you see them.

These monkeys are really elusive and you will hear them crashing through the branches overhead before you see them. This means that dead falling branches, large birds, and the wind will get your hopes up more than once.

Coming back to the hunt itself, if you don't see the monkeys in the afternoon before sundown you're probably not going to find them at night, which is when you NEED to find them for this study. If you do find the monkeys in the afternoon you try to stay with them, which is difficult because they can move through trees a lot quicker than you can as you're watching for snakes and trying to keep up. If all goes well you will know the general area where they have decided to call it a night. You then go home and eat some empanadas.

After dinner is when the real hunt begins. You go back to the area in the dark of the night with a head torch and a flashlight and extra batteries. Sometimes these regions are quite far into the forest so there is lots of time for you to creep yourself out with your own thoughts and think that a jaguar is stalking you and what you would use to defend yourself against a jaguar and then you finally come to the conclusion that there are no jaguars in this forest and then you convince yourself to agree with this conclusion. And then a forest pigeon jumps out from a bush 3 feet away from you spewing its "pru pru pru" into the air as you, just for a moment but quite literally, die.

Last week, "The Shark", a dutch bird watching friend of mine and I went for one of these night hunts knowing approximately the region where the monkeys had settled for the night.  After 30 minutes in the forest we came across one of their sleeping trees and stayed with them for awhile just watching them as they swung, climbed and chirped at us. They didn't like that we were shining our lights on them, so we didn't stay long. Before we left, we heard small objects falling into the bushes around us. On further inspection, it became clear that a fecal war had just begun. For a moment we contemplated using similar tactics, but thought better of it and retreated.

The next morning me and primatologist Becca (insert photo cred here) returned to the tree before dawn and experienced similar fecal warfare. We did however, manage to capture some pretty sweet shots (of the photographic kind).

Leap of Faith out of the sleeping tree

Mama with her youngin "Bowie" goin for a leap

Damion the sub-adult who is not one of our biggest fans - He initiates the fecal warfare


When they run away from us, they use a decoy to distract us, while the rest make a getaway - Smart little guys will also lead you in a circle to tire you out

That's all the monkey business for this week. I'll Keep you posted for when the shit hits the man.


Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Breakfast at Paraguay's

I don't generally like talking about myself too much, especially through this medium known as the blog, so I will mostly be explaining where I am, what it's all about and what everyone is doing. At times the posts will be fun and entertaining, but sometimes they will be technical and will explain how something is done and why. So before I disclaim my life away I'll let you guys and gals know where I am and what is happening.

Right now I'm in Paraguay, right here:

Paraguay (Hope Google doesn't mind)

A small and land-locked country in south America that is rarely visited by tourists due to a lack of a 'coastal ecosystem' (defined as an ecosystem containing predominantly salt water, sand, alcohol, and umbrellas ranging in size from 'shady margarita' to 'beached tourist'. The main species present in this ecosystem is the homosapien typically found lying face up, face down or engaging in some type of throwing or wading. No one knows the exact cause of attraction of the homo-sapien to the coastal ecosystem, but theories suggesting survival, sex, aesthetic broiling, transcendental experience, and recreation to be some of the leading causes).

Two languages are spoken in Paraguay including Spanish and Guarani. Guarani is the native tribal dialect that is only spoken in Paraguay and does not resemble any other language. I've only come to know how to say the word guitar in Guarani which is baraka and cat which is barakaja. The two sound very similar, but my lack of Guaranian syntax knowledge prevents me from knowing why, but my most basic guess is that both things can make sounds that are both sweet and obnoxious. 

I will be staying at the Laguna Blanca Natural Reserve for the next 3 months as part of a capuchin monkey research project. The project is one of the several projects being undertaken by Para La Tierra (an NGO out of the UK) that aims to protect Paraguay's understudied biodiversity by utilizing public outreach, education and by providing a research base for students of various zoological and ecological backgrounds to facilitate their own research projects. 

The pink star is the Para La Tierra Research Base. The three different ecosystems are clearly
outlined, as well as the land conversion to agriculture in the vicinity. (Photo Cred. Google - Hope they still don't mind)

There are 3 main ecosystems found in this area that include Atlantic Forest, Transitional Forest and Cerrado. All three of these regions have been disturbed by land transformation, predominantly for large scale agricultural operations, however the federal natural reserve status that was assigned to the region 3 years ago (thanks to the work of Karina Atkinson) means that 400 hectares of this ecosystem apex will remain protected until 2015 (whereupon its reserve status will be reviewed). Over 30 species have been discovered here in the last 3 years that are a first discovery in Paraguay and 1-3 species have been discovered that are completely new to science. 

The outskirts of the Atlantic Forest

The Cerrado

Capuchin monkey business in the Atlantic Forest

I'll keep you guys posted. But before I go, I'll leave you guys with this video I put together the other day of a leaf-cutter ant colony that has trails running around our base. Cheers.
(Song Credit Michael Kiwanuka.)