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Nighttime In The Rainforest Canopy

Author: Tremaine Gregory, PhD
Date: January 24, 2012
Primates in the Canopy

By Tremaine Gregory

During the winter session at ITEC on Bocas de Toro Island,Panama, Joe Maher was joined for his Canopy Access Techniques course by Dr. Tremaine Gregory, Ph.D. and Farah Carrasco Rueda, MSc., primatologists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability.

Tremaine and Farah are leading a project in the Lower Urubamba Region of the Peruvian Amazon in an area where a natural gas pipeline is being built. They are assessing the effectiveness of natural canopy bridges in mitigating the impact of the construction of the pipeline on the arboreal animals, namely primates, in the tropical forest. This project is part of a partnership between Smihsonian and the energy company Repsol Exploracion Peru.

Because Neotropical primates are almost strictly arboreal and are in danger of predation when on the ground, they are expected to be heavily impacted by the construction of a pipeline, with a swath approximately 16 meters wide. Because they can impede movement of primates, pipelines have the potential to discontinue gene flow from one side of the pipeline to the other, creating an effect similar to that of a river. However, by leaving connections over the top of the pipeline, or canopy "bridges," at approximately 400 meter intervals, this project aims to assess the effectiveness of a method to partially mitigate this impact.

As part of their project, Tremaine and Farah will be placing camera traps (cameras that are triggered by a combination of heat and motion) in the canopy at the bridges in order to assess primate use of these natural crossings. However, placing the cameras is no easy feat, and when Smithsonian discovered Joe's Canopy Access Techniques course, they knew they were in luck. Joining Joe for the course's winter session, Tremaine and Farah received the training (and tough love approach) needed to get the job done. Not only did they learn how to access the canopy, but with the help of Joe's coaching and expertise, they placed two cameras in fig trees in the canopy. In just two weeks of camera time, they were able to collect photos of six species of animals, including all three primates present on the island (the white-throated capuchin, mantled howler monkey, and night monkey), woolly opossums, a spiny rat, and, an endothermic surprise: iguanas.

Now Tremaine and Farah will be putting their new skills to the test when they return to Peru this spring to place cameras in approximately 30 trees. Just in case, they have asked Joe to be on standby for satellite phone calls from 5,000km south and 40 meters up!

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