U of C research monkeys hit by hurricane

Just southeast of Belize City, Hurricane Richard made landfall Oct. 28 causing damage to a University of Calgary research post. The system was classified as a category one hurricane and, according to Belizean newspaper Amandala, overall damage was estimated to cost $25 million CAD. The storm caused a nation-wide power outage and damaged about 831 homes.

A U of C spider monkey research post at Runaway Creek was also hit by the hurricane.

“It was very unusual. It actually seemed more like multiple tornadoes had touched down throughout that whole part of the country,” said anthropology department head Mary Pavelka, who conducts research at the site. “For example, the Belize Zoo was severely damaged. There were areas where one huge cotton tree would be uprooted but another one just 100 metres away would still have all of its leaves. Out in the forest where we do our work, which is about 15-20 miles south of the Belize Zoo, we had the same thing where patches of severe damage were right along patches only 100 metres away that had little to no damage.”

Pavelka was in Calgary when the hurricane hit.

This is not the first time one of the U of C’s research sites in Belize has been affected by hurricanes. Hurricane Iris, a category four hurricane, devastated local infrastructure in Oct. 2001 leaving many people homeless. Iris completely defoliated a black howler monkey research site at Monkey River.

“Hurricane Iris left a huge swath that wiped out everything, every leaf from every tree,” said Pavelka. “Most trees had been snapped or uprooted and had major structural damage to the crowns of the trees.”

Iris significantly reduced the howler monkey population and researchers are concerned that a similar decline in the spider monkey population is likely to occur.

Anthropology sessional instructor Alison Behie received her PhD studying the aftermath of Hurricane Iris and its affects on the black howler monkeys at Monkey River.

“Howler monkeys are leaf-eating monkeys and are able to sustain themselves on leaves,” said Behie. “But even though they are designed to eat leaves, without fruit they couldn’t survive. They couldn’t grow and they couldn’t reproduce.”

Spider monkeys are exclusively fruit eaters and are unable to survive on a diet of leaves. In Monkey River, fruit did not regenerate for 18 months. If the situation is similar to Hurricane Richard, it’s unlikely the animals will be able to survive.

“I expect the population would not fair very well,” said Behie.

Pavelka said the monkeys have already shown behaviour to suggest a food shortage is underway.

“We’re seeing females fight in fruit trees which we never saw before,” said Pavelka. “They also seem to be relying heavily on foods that they normally don’t eat and, for a specialized frugivore, that can’t be good.”

Pavelka added that the anthropology department does not interfere when conducting research at various primatology sites. After the devastation of Hurricane Iris, no provisions were made for the howler monkeys at Monkey River. The spider monkeys at Runaway Creek will not receive any aid from the researchers either.

Behie said while such measures can be difficult for researchers in the face of suffering, they are necessary.

“We want to be natural researches and study natural processes,” said Behie. “If we are going to understand natural processes and to be able to use that for conservation we can’t intervene. We can just document what happens and as awful as it is, it is still important for us to know.”

One natural process the researchers discovered from the data at Monkey River was after their habitat disturbance, many howler monkeys contracted a liver fluke known as controrchis. This was initially surprising because contraction requires the ingestion of ants and howler monkeys do not normally eat insects. A further look at the data showed the howler monkeys with the highest prevalence of controrchis were eating Cercropia peltata, commonly referred to as the trumpet tree. This plant takes advantage of increased sunlight on the forest floor caused by disturbance, such as a hurricane, and uses ants to defend against herbivores.

The Monkey River findings were recently published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases.

“What we’ve done in this recent paper is make the connection between habitat fragmentation, pioneer species moving in and the exposure of a herbivorous animal to ants,” said Pavelka. “People have suggested before that animals are more susceptible to disease but we’ve shown an actual real link.”

The recent damage at the Runaway Creek site will allow for further testing of the hypothesis established at Monkey River.

“One of the criticisms that I’ve received on this study is that it is not repeatable but apparently it is repeatable,” said Pavelka. “It was awful when it happened and it was awful to see the damage but for the same research team to find ourselves another hurricane and a different monkey species, in many ways it’s really exciting.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.