Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys


What Might Monkeys Be Up To?

The Guizhou snub-nosed monkey’s night life was a secret until recently.

The Guizhou snub-nosed monkey’s night life was a secret until recently.

February 10 marks the beginning of a new year, the Year of the Snake, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. I cannot help but reflect on what I have done in the past year and contemplate what I wish to accomplish in this new year.

Last year, my research project focused on an investigation of wild Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys in China using camera traps. This work was conducted in Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve (FNNR) in collaboration with the reserve’s administration. We set up a network of over 100 camera traps to monitor, in addition to the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey, many hard-to-see wildlife species in the reserve (see post Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My!,). Some of our unexpected captures were images of Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys moving about in the middle of the night (see article in Primates). Although these monkeys are considered daytime active species very much like humans, our camera-trap data provided unequivocal proof that they are routinely active after dark. What might the monkeys be up to?

Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys’ nocturnal habit, we believe, is motivated by the need to acquire as much food as possible. In other words, the monkeys are up at night because they are hungry. To some people, this discovery may seem like a non-discovery, but many great scientific discoveries are inherently simple, and they often start out with a simple observation, like the apple that fell on Newton’s head. But I digress, back to the monkeys.

An important outcome of our camera-trap study, besides showing the behavioral flexibility the monkeys have to cope with living in a highly seasonal environment, is the need for researchers to rethink methodological designs that minimize observer bias. If we habitually observe diurnal primates during the daytime we, of course, have data that only show them being active during the hours we observe them. Camera traps, therefore, are excellent devices to augment our data collection. And, because of the amount of photographs we have, you can count on me spending much of my time this year uncovering more secrets about the animals in Fanjingshan.

My research collaborators, from left: Duoying Cui (Beijing Zoo), Marco Gamba (University of Torino), me, Yeqin Yang (FNNR), and Kefeng Niu (FNNR)

My research collaborators, from left: Duoying Cui (Beijing Zoo), Marco Gamba (University of Torino), me, Yeqin Yang (FNNR), and Kefeng Niu (FNNR)

An intrinsic part of what I do as a scientist is to assist students with their professional development. Through mentorship of students, I help foster future colleagues and, in turn, expand my network of collaborators. This past year several of my students completed their research thesis, attained a higher degree, received scholarships, and/or launched new projects. James Dopp is a graduate of the University of Vermont who worked with me in Fanjingshan in 2010 through 2012. He has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to further sharpen his research skills in primate conservation in China.

Kefeng Niu, a resident biologist of FNNR, continued to benefit from my coaching. In August, he successfully delivered a paper in English at the International Primatological Society Congress. The Congress also provided Kefeng a chance to meet other professionals, among them, Dr. Marco Gamba, my Italian colleague from the University of Torino. I introduced Marco and his research on primate vocal communication to Kefeng. We later invited Marco to join us in Fanjingshan to resume our wonderful discussion about snub-nosed monkey biology with China’s renowned primate expert, Yeqin Yang (see post Saving Monkeys Takes a Team). And the rest, as they say, is history, because when Marco left Fanjingshan, he had already signed a five-year research agreement with the reserve administration and gained a prospective PhD student, Kefeng Niu. Mama mia!

Cameron makes her debut as “Yi Jie Jie”

Cameron makes her debut as “Yi Jie Jie”

Recently, my mentorship pool of students included a junior from High Tech High International. Her name is Cameron Ishee, and though only 16, she is well on her way to transforming how people perceive and treat animals. Because of Cameron’s ability to speak Chinese (Mandarin), I asked her to help me create a series of bilingual video lessons for the children in the Little Green Guards program in Guizhou (see post March of the Little Green Guards). Each episode stars Cameron as Yi Jie Jie (or Big Sister Yi) teaching an English alphabet letter and about half a dozen animal-related words associated with the featured letter. To make learning memorable and fun, we segue from the classroom lessons into video segments of our Zoo and Safari Park animals. In doing so, we are achieving several objectives: introducing a world-class animal collection to underprivileged children who would otherwise never have the opportunity to travel to San Diego, and enhancing the school curriculum by teaching these children a highly valued foreign language that only children living in the more affluent urban areas of China are learning.

Our pilot episode is almost complete. Cameron and I will continue making more episodes this year. Just a little spoiler alert here, snake will be featured in our upcoming episode: “S is for Snake.”

Chia Tan is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My!

Wild Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys "caught" by the camera trap.

“Follow, observe, and record,” was the first directive I learned starting out as a field primatologist. For years I did exactly that; all day long in Madagascar, from the moment the lemurs awoke before sunrise till they retired at the end of the day after sunset. And I took great pride in my ability to habituate these primates, follow them up and down mountain slopes through dense vegetation, and observe and record their behavior with just a pair of binoculars, a notebook, and a pen.

An Asiatic bear cub follows its mother.

This simple standard methodology, though it can be successfully applied to studying many primate species, is not well suited for snub-nosed monkey research in China. Why? Free-ranging Chinese snub-nosed monkeys are notoriously difficult to follow because they live in groups containing hundreds of individuals and are not tolerant of human observers. Also, unlike most primate species that inhabit tropical environments, these monkeys range into the temperate zone in areas where snowfall occurs four to five months of the year. In other words, collecting behavioral data on free-ranging Chinese snub-nosed monkeys through direct observation was a tremendous challenge for researchers, until recently.

Tibetan macaques

Last year my colleagues at Fanjingshan nature reserve and I began using camera traps in our research of the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey (see post Saving Monkeys Takes a Team). And as you can tell by the title of this post, the captured images included not only the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey but also another rare macaque species, the Tibetan macaque, as well as leopard cats, bears, and other elusive mammals, indicating the reserve still harbors a rich community of wildlife! We are in the process of sorting through thousands of camera-trap images, but I’ve included some exciting examples here.

Leopard cat

Indeed, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and these images convey much information about the behavior of wild animals. However, we need to be mindful that camera traps are tools for collecting supplemental data; they cannot be used to replace researchers. It is important for researchers to spend quality time with their study animals in the field to obtain data firsthand that provide the contextual information necessary for the observed behaviors. All those years of me running after lemurs and monkeys in the forest, therefore, was not done in vain. Through direct observation, I have gained an understanding about primates in situ.

This understanding has helped me interpret the camera-trap images and infer the motivations of the monkeys’ behaviors in a biologically meaningful way. I must admit I was not a huge fan of camera-trap technology initially, but I am thoroughly impressed with the images captured so far. I give it a “thumbs up!”

Chia Tan is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Saving Monkeys Takes a Team

An adolescent male Guizhou snub-nosed monkey

San Diego Zoo Global and China’s Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve Administration are working together to conserve the last remaining population of Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys, currently numbering about 750 individuals. Most people probably have never heard of these monkeys. That’s because Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys are elusive and difficult to observe in the wild. Although a troop typically contains 100 to 200 individuals, the monkeys are extremely wary of potential predators, nowadays mainly humans. Also, Fanjingshan is steep in topography, making it a challenge for researchers to conduct fieldwork. Nevertheless, since we began our collaborative research in 2007, we have been advancing our knowledge of the monkeys’ habitat and dietary requirements, information that is essential for the species’ long-term survival.

March in Fanjingshan, Yangaoping research area. Photo credit: Kefeng Niu

A successful conservation endeavor requires a team of dedicated people. I am fortunate to work directly with the reserve director, Yeqin Yang, a fellow biologist whose legacy resides in protecting the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey, the cornerstone species in the reserve. Partnering with the reserve administration has truly been a privilege. In China, rarely do foreign scientists have direct access to reserve administrations. It is often the case that foreign scientists join an in-country academic who establishes and maintains the relationship with protected area management. Needless to say, working through an intermediary is not the most effective way to carry out one’s research and conservation objectives.

April in Fanjingshan, Yangaoping research area

This year, besides incorporating camera-trap technology in our scientific investigations of the monkeys, we are adding an education component to our in situ conservation efforts. With funds from the Offield Family Foundation, San Diego Zoo Global, Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve Administration, International Primatological Society, and an anonymous donor, we have developed a conservation education program that is socioculturally relevant to the rural setting in Fanjingshan. Heading this program in the reserve administration is one of their engineers, Kefeng Niu, a promising young scientist with great determination and leadership qualities. The program, called Little Green Guards, targets primary school children and aims to foster a generation of environmentally conscious citizens. Through games, storytelling, arts, and music, we want to instill empathy and respect toward wildlife in children living near nature reserves.

The Little Green Guards logo, designed by one of our enthusiastic volunteers, Bing Yang.

Conservation education is still a novel concept to most Chinese, and appreciation for nature and wildlife is incompatible with traditional utilitarian views on natural resources. With a country of over 1.3 billion people, the Little Green Guards have a long march ahead. We believe in our team efforts, and we are hopeful that our regional conservation movement will gain momentum and garner national and international support.

Chia Tan is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.