The Monkey Talk

The Monkey Talk

The annual Assembly of Owners of LAT provides the residents with the opportunity to get to know other owners who have yet to build a home here and, as a result, come to LAT only infrequently.  Besides making our guestrooms available and having meals at home as well as at local restaurants, we have in the past organized tours of homes, visits to the escuelita, The LAT supported after-school school, bird walks and, of course, cocktail parties.  Each year, as the community grows and more people get involved, we try to offer new highlights for owners to take back to their cold and snow-bound homes.

Without question, this year’s highlight set new standards.  Even those of us who live here were  astonished by what we learned and witnessed.  

The occasion was the Monkey Talk, presented at the Community Center the evening before the General Assembly.  Dr. Filippo Aureli, the renowned Spider Monkey expert, the conservationist, Dr. Denise Spaanand Cecilia Cahum, our field biologist, reported for the first time on the results of their research over the past 2 years.

Complementing this event was the book launch of Cecilia Cahum’s collection of nature photographs.  The exquisite selection of photos, all taken right here in our jungle during her daily survey walks, really brought out the very special quality of our jungle community.  Cecilia is a gifted photographer with an incredibly steady hand and lots of opportunities to take pictures. Not surprisingly, the first edition of the books sold out quickly as did some of the individually framed prints.  Bu no worries!  Additional copies will be available very soon. 

Just in case you do not know, LAT has become an internationally recognized research location that is attracting scientists from the United States, Latin America and Europe for a variety of different scientific projects.  Research at LAT is receiving support from National Geographic Society; the University of Santa Cruz, Mexico; the Max Planck Institute, Germany; the Texas University system and Tulane University in New Orleans. In fact, National Geographic Society has already provided grants for two specific undertakings.  And, of course, all research at LAT is co-sponsored by our community.

Back to Friday evening.  A wine and cheese reception attended by more than 40 guests opened the evening at 5:30 pm.  We had to wait for the sun to go down to be able to use one of the walls of the Community Center for a screen.  Some of us wondered – impatiently – why a wall exposed to the setting sun – thus delaying the commencement of the evening’s program! – was chosen.  The more enlightened, however, pointed out that this delay extended the opportunity to visit with others and enjoy the selection of wines and cheeses. 

By around 7:00 pm, resident Michael Moore, acting as the MC of the event, introduced Filippo to the cheerful crowd.  Reminiscent of Oscar Awards, Filippo went down a long list of thank you’s to those who had helped with the execution of the Los Arboles Tulum Monkey Research Project over the past two 2 years.  

He could have just as well read a current list of LAT homeowners.  Somehow, we, as individual residents, had been clueless of the fact that literally everyone who lives here was involved in some way or another.  It was wonderful to become aware that a group of residents, without planning to do so, had acted as a community.  Apparently, Spider Monkeys, among the many important tasks they perform during their daily routines, also facilitate community spirit.  Who knew?

Filippo went into some detail to explain to the audience why Spider monkeys are so hugely important to the well-being of the jungle environment.  Not only is their presence and behavior an indicator of the jungle’s health, but these highly intelligent animals also contribute positively to the eco system of the forest.  A jungle with Spider Monkeys is a healthy jungle.  “What goes into a monkey, comes out of a monkey”, Filippo eloquently opined.  Monkeys eat many things with hard seeds; the seeds pass through the monkey and are dispersed, nicely imbedded in fertilizer (i.e., monkey poop), all over the forest to grow into big trees that will provide more tasty food for the monkeys.  To wit, a perfect synergy.

Maybe, one day, we humans will figure out how to live in similar perfect synergy with our surroundings.  It’s high time that we catch up with the monkeys.

Filippo commented also on the unique quality of LAT for behavior studies of Spider monkeys.  The key to the high quality of our jungleis that we only will ever use 5% of it and leave the remaining 95% untouched.  There is no illegal logging going on in LAT and no hunting.  The animals feel safe.  In addition, as Filippo mentioned, the pace of new home construction in LAT has helped the monkeys, and the rest of the jungle dwellers (including plants), to adjust gradually to the impact of human presence.  

For a primatologist, this presents a unique opportunity to study these animals while they are adapting to environmental change.  Apparently, there is much to be learned from this dialectic interaction.  In fact, LAT-based research has already been presented at several prestigious scientific conferences. We even have become part of a recent doctoral dissertation. 

After these introductory comments, Filippo handed the stage over to Cecilia.  Cecilia must be one of the bravest individuals on earth.  For the last two years she has slogged through our jungle at any and all times of the day and night following our monkeys and collecting data on their whereabouts and activities.  Think about this for a moment!  What sheer fearlessness is necessary to hike over the extremely treacherous ground, full of sharp holes, spiders, snakes, scorpions, jaguars and who knows what –  at 5 am!  No thanks!  If you ask her if she has lost her mind, she just smiles. “It’s the backyard in which I grew up.”  Oh well, to each her own.

Cecilia reported on the specific results of her two year- long field work.  Her task here at LAT is to plot her monkey sightings’ locations and times, augment them with observation by residents, and enter these data on a map.  Unexpectedly, this map shows that, in fact, two distinct groups of Spider Monkeys are making LAT their home – not just one!  However, what is particularly unusual is that there is a wide ‘no-monkey’ strip of land cutting from South to North all the way through the development.  

Filippo pointed out that the lack of apparent interaction between the two groups and a big neutral ground separating them has not been observed in other areas where different groups of Spider Monkeys live in close proximity.  Normally, the two groups would interact with each other.  Cecilia, and other members of the team, will be studying this phenomenon in detail this year to try to understand why the monkeys completely avoid this huge area.  Stay tuned.  

Cecilia then introduced us to a number of the individual monkeysshe has identified and named. It was great fun to see the individually distinct features of our monkeys and learn their names.  After all, they are our neighbors too.  Several residents were honored by having monkeys named after them based on shared physical characteristics.  All very scientific, of course.  Now, as a result of having two, not just one, group here, Cecilia’s work of identifying the individual members of a group just doubled.

After Cecilia’s presentation, Denise took the helm and presented the results of her project in LAT for which she had received her recent grant from the National Geographic Society.  Dr. Denise Spaan is a member of the prestigious group of scholars sponsored by this society, and the 2018 drone project was her second LAT-based project supported by a grant from this organization.

The team she put together included an astrophysicist and an engineer from Great Britain, two documentary film-makers specializing in nature documentaries as well as two graduate students from the Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico.  The aim of the investigation Denise directed was to test the viability of using thermal cameras carried by drones to record spider monkey activity obscured by foliage.

Then the screen suddenly switched to a display of the official logo of the National Geographic Society that slowly changed to a view of Los Arboles.  The audience turned quiet.   Wow!  This was our home!  Our community!  It was incredibly exciting.The realization that we were actually the subject a documentary produced for one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world took a while to sink in. The acute awareness that the commitment our community made to be stewards of this jungle is being recognized as an important contribution to Conservation sciences was electrifying. 

Both, Filippo and Denise, emphasized repeatedly that no recordings of the video should be made.  The documentary has not been publicly released.  It was shown to us only because we hosted the entire team and welcomed them with open arms.  They not only worked and filmed in Los Arboles; they also lived in our community for the entire duration of the project 

The video was incredible. Beautiful aerial shots of our jungle mixed with fabulous views from the ground.  Images captured by the thermal camera juxtaposed on the same screen with simultaneous views of the same location taken by a conventional digital camera showed how effective drones can be for primate research.  Denise comments frequently in the video, and the entire team is shown hard at work at locations most of us could readily identify.    

Filippo told us that once the contractual period of exclusive use has lapsed, the video will be released and accessible on YouTube and the LAT website. 

Following the documentary, Denise presented a compilation video of the best and most interesting footage captured with the thermal camera using the drone. It was astounding to see how successfully this technology was able to penetrate the foliage and differentiate the obfuscated monkeys cavorting below the canopy.  Orange-red form could be seen, their spider-like shape and movement clearly identifying them as Spider Monkeys.  It looked a little bit like a ninja movie: rapidly moving obscured figures, their presence revealed only by their thermal radiation.  Very high-tech stuff.  On the split screen, we could see the same view recorded simultaneously by a conventional digital camera showing only subtle, indistinguishable movements.  

Denise told us that the 2nd phase of the drone project is scheduled to take place at Los Arboles and Puerto Morelos this March.  Dr. Owen McAree will come over again from England, and there will be several new investigators from the University of Texas at Austin, the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico and the Politecnico Nacional joining the project.  Kudos to Dr. Denise Spaan for bringing together such a diverse, international team for the continuation of the Spider Monkey-related research at Los Arboles Tulum.  We will be sure to show them the high standards of hospitality we cultivate here in the jungle

Filippo then took over again and shared with us a video produced by the Universidad Veracruzana on the environmental education work done by ConMonoMaya, the non-profit started by Filippo and operated by him.  The organization works closely with the Mexican government and different primate and conservation specialists to study the regional primates and spread awareness of their endangerment. The film featured children of a primary school who send clear messages about why monkeys should not be kept as pets.  The sincerity of these kids was very endearing and uplifting at the same time. 

Concluding the exciting evening was a slide show of some of the funniest, most interesting and memorable moments ConMonoMaya members had in Los Arboles this past year.  It was a wonderful way to bring the evening to a close.  Denise put together an amusing account of some of these events.  You can read it here:

2018 was quite a year for monkey research in Los Arboles Tulum and was marked by many memorable moments.

​Sleeping monkeys and terrorizing scorpions: This past year Coral and myself started the first ever study to find out what spider monkeys do at night. As some of you will know, especially those with monkeys sleeping on their driveways, the monkeys sometimes start making noise in the middle of the night. This has long puzzled us. Why would the monkeys wake up at 3am to start making whinnies (their most common vocalization)?Are they being bugged by nightmares or just need to make a trip to the bathroom? Thanks to the generous support of Robert and Carol, we have been able to observe (and mostly listen to) the behavior of spider monkeys at night from their rooftop at D17. Coral and I would work in 7 hour shifts starting from sunset and going all the way until sunrise. And as you can imagine, the monkeys generally tend to do the same as us…. Sleep! The nights were very long and very cold. We would bring a whole arsenal of sweaters and blankets which we would put on one by one as the hours passed by. As the months went on we learned to time it well so that by 4 am we had the perfect number of layers to endure the 100% humidity and cold nights of December. It was often extremely difficult to try and stay awake, especially if the monkeys had not let out so much as a peep for hours. But for the first few months of the study we had some help by the terrorizing scorpion that inhabited the rooftop. This humungous scorpion would walk around the rooftop, pointing its gigantic pincers at us and even if we tried to get rid of it using a broom would reappear only a few hours later. It was not until after several months of enduring the nightly terrors that we decided to give the scorpion a flying lesson using the trash picker and have not seen him since!We assumed that would be the end of our visits by nocturnal animals. But alas. One night I enjoyed a midnight snack of a yogurt drink, which after finishing I returned to my backpack. Sitting looking out over the moonlit treetops my backpack started to make a rumbling noise. My first instinct was fear that the terrorizing scorpion had returned. I sat and watched my backpack shake a little for a few minutes before grabbing a long object to poke my backpack with. After several pokes, each with increasing severity, a beautiful little mouse popped his head out of my backpack.It took insistent poking for it to finally scurry away. But this mouse was insistent and came back for more yogurt one two more occasions that evening. I guess I was not the only one that enjoyed a midnight snack.  

Special moments and allergic reactions: In addition to our nighttime forest companions we also had a lot of fun during the day. The monkeys kept us busy and amazed. Cecilia observed the monkeys sit on ledges that line the roads on several occasions, saw them chase a kinkajou away from its resting place,in addition to their usual antics! Whilst walking in the forest we sometimes have to hold on to trees so as not to lose our balance when trying to run after the monkeys on the rocky ground. And even though we all know what the evil Chechen trees look like, on several occasions I look up after placing my hand on a tree to stop myself from falling over only to see it touching this dangerous tree. I have become famous within the monkey team for my horrible allergic reactions and blistery fingers. 2019 did not start off any better as I have already had my first (and worst) reaction to date! 

Frequent flyer miles for our drones: as many of your aware our British collaborators came over last June with a beautiful and custom-built drone. This drone flew from Manchester to Cancun on a direct flight. However, after a small crash (yes, crash… but only a minor one), our drone needed to go back to the UK to get a check-up. Filippo flew with the drone to Zurich in Switzerland, from where it travelled with Serge Wich to Liverpool. The drone will come back to Mexico again in March this year.We have recently bought a second drone which has also accumulated a respectable number of airmiles. The drone was shipped to New York City, from which it flew to Amsterdam, The Netherlands where it was reunited with team member Denise who flew the drone to Mexico on a 13 hour flight with stopped over in Cuba!  

Some of us lingered at the Community Center.  We wanted to talk to our neighbors about what we had just seen.  This presentation of the last two years of research clearly signified a major milestone in the realization of our community’s mandate to protect this jungle and live in a relationship with our natural environment that is verifiably positive. It is no longer just ‘talk’.  We have arrived.  We now have scientific verification.  Los Arboles Tulum has become a seedbed of scientific knowledge and insight.  And to see a National Geographic Institute documentary about us, our nascent community of Los Arboles Tulum, that was just the best.

We are on the right track!​

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