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 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, Ph.D., is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

10 Responses to Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My!

  1. The pictures are wonderful Chia Tan. I know nothing about the Chinese snub-nosed monkeys but articles like this inspire me to learn more about them. Since your research is in China, are these monkeys threatened by loss of habitat by people?

    Please write another blog when you have some more information and have been able to view many many more of your images.

    • Hi Lee,
      Indeed, habitat loss is one of the biggest threats to wildlife in China. Fanjingshan is the last remaining refuge for the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey. In order to protect this species, we need the buy-in of local communities and the right kind of conservation leadership. It’s by no means easy but I’m hopeful and committed to this cause.
      Thank you!

  2. This is such an interesting and informative blog, Dr. Chia (I do hope I gave your name correctly). Your research is so important to the survival of these amazingly wonderful creatures, and it was good to hear of the place that photo-traps have in it. I hope you will tell us more about this work and what you are discovering. Thank you for your hard work and dedication.

    • Please call me Chia, Shirley. Thank you for your kind words. I enjoy my work because it’s challenging and never dull. I will definitely keep you posted with additional discoveries!
      Thanks again!

  3. Thank you for your wonderful and educational work. People like are the ones that encourage us and let us harbor the hope that future generations will be able to have a better life surrounded by the wonders of nature and its creatures.
    Thank you again!
    ME Martinez

    • From the bottom of my heart, “Thank you, Maria!” We all try!

  4. Great work Mr. Chia Tan! I stand beside “Lee in Vancouver” in your first response. I, as well have, have no knowledge of the Chinese snub-nosed monkeys. I have only seen a picture or two of them, in my lifetime. I am fascinated by there faces alone. They appear almost alien-like, but very, very cute. I noticed how most of them are looking at the camera. Does your camera-trap produce a notable light source, and or a sound loud enough to be detected by the animals?

    Again, great work! I look forward to your future work!

    • Hi Dallas,
      You raised an excellent question about camera traps. Each of our cameras is equipped with an infrared sensor, and the light emitted is not perceptible by most animals. Also there is no shutter sound on these digital cameras. Though we have many other candid monkey photos, I selected some of our best ones to display their wonderful facial features.
      Thank you for your encouraging words!

  5. Wow, what cool photos! Those monkeys are incredible. I’m glad you discovered the redeeming qualities of camera traps. Those shots are amazing, and wild animals would NEVER behave like that in the presence of people. I hope you’ll share lots more images and blogs with us. Thank you for all your hard work.

  6. Hi Zoodog,
    Digital photography has really come a long way. I’m excited about the application of camera traps in primate field research. This method is noninvasive and poses minimal disturbance to the animals. Surely, there will be more exciting photos to come! Thanks so much!