“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.
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.
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.
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.