Amy (right) and I are at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
Amy Klegarth is an urban primatologist, whose focus is on long-tailed macaques. She is working on her PhD at Notre Dame University and carrying out her research in Evolutionary Biology Lab, at National University of Singapore. For detailed information on her research project, you can check her blog out, as well as her column in National Geographic Magazine. She has been to various countries in Southeast Asia for field work and oftentimes you can hear her telling stories about her crazy field work experiences. We did this interview in one of her fieldwork sites, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in Singapore. Alright, you may already be impatient for watching the long-tailed macaque videos and finding an answer to the question ‘Why macaques?’, so shall we begin?
Bilgenur Baloglu- We are doing this interview for the monkey project. Can you tell us about yourself Amy?
Amy Klegarth- I am a 4th year PhD student at the University of Notre Dame and currently I am being hosted in Rudolf Meier’s Lab at National University of Singapore. I am here doing my Fulbright for the year. This is my 4th trip out to Singapore. Right above, probably hard to see, but there is an adult male monkey, named Spartacus.
– Does he have a collar on him?
Yes, he is wearing a very fancy piece of bling. It is about 3700 USD for a GPS collar for these animals, so he is a very expensive, fancy monkey right now. He is one of six monkeys wearing collars around Singapore at the moment.
– Why did you put collar on him?
We have been limited with the information regarding to home ranges of primates in general. Researchers are limited to radio telemetry, which requires a lot of manpower and time. Hence, you cannot collect hundreds or thousands of dense data points. So historically, a lot of primate home range work is using a fairly low number of points per day. We are finding as technology advances and GPS becomes more and more accessible to answer a lot of questions about energetic expenditure, home and daily ranges and territoriality that it is really important to have a pretty dense amount of data on this. GPS reduces the man hours, because the collar stores all the data internally, until we come to download it from the monkeys. He has been running around the forest since mid-December and I will get all of his locational points from the past two months, when I start downloading. We are also interested in helping wildlife managers with species management and conflict mitigation. Knowing how often they come into human settlement areas like the suburban build-ups, figuring out what times they go to these areas, how often it occurs, if there are certain attractants, for instance, perhaps there is a problem of poor trash requisition attracting the monkeys, patterns like these we can cover more with this dense GPS data. At the moment I am tracking six monkeys in six different troops.
Female macaque and her baby on the shrubby Simpoh air (Dillennia suffriticosa) plant (above). The caregiver mother and her newborn baby (below). Photos by Bilgenur Baloglu
– You are talking about long-tailed macaques, right?
Yes, they are the common monkeys here in Singapore. There is also a locally endangered leaf monkey here, but there are only 40-60 of them and they are quite shy. But the long-tailed macaques are used to humans, we call that habituated. You can see one coming down the railing right here. They are quite nice monkeys, I mean you hear complaints about them.
– They are not harmful, as people claim. Are they?
I think the complaints have a lot to do with perceptions, it is a lot of people not necessarily understanding what monkey behavior looks like. Often times, if a monkey just walks past somebody, they consider that aggressive. Especially the very habituated ones will come up and snatch bags, because they know that is food in there. But very infrequently does it result to an actual harm to anybody. It is very infrequent that somebody actually get scratched or bitten. I believe National Parks would see somewhere between 1000 or 2000 complaints per year. So, considering the population here is 5 million people plus tourists plus 2000 monkeys, this is actually an extremely low complaint rate, given that the monkeys are in and around people all the time. If you filter out those complaints, most of them just tend to be just sightings of monkeys. Very few of them, maybe 1/4 of them, are more serious complaints, such as monkey chasing after or grabbing something from people.
– In Southeast Asia, there are many people working on monkeys, but different species, right? Since you have been to many conferences around, can you give us more detail on this?
Throughout Southeast Asia, yes. Actually long-tailed macaques tend to get neglected, because primatologists like to work on super endangered species. This kind of really common, urban monkeys, long-tailed or rhesus macaques are often overlooked. But they are the ones that have the heaviest interface with humans. They are the ones that we rely on for the biomedical research models. So it is actually important species to study to understand their ecology and evolutionarily background since we rely on them heavily for many reasons. If you are studying disease spread and interactions, they are the ones most commonly interacting with people, along with other species. People transmitting a disease to a macaque is not out of the realm of possibility as we are actually more of a disease risk to them than they are to us. Those diseases can then be further transmitted to other, perhaps endangered species. The more contact we have with the long-tailed macaques, the more cognizant we need to be about how we behave because these interactions spread beyond us.
– You are using that computer for getting the data. You are also using the antenna, here is Kathy who is holding it (she is a postdoc in Evolab). Can you show us the little bit of the process?
This is the download antenna (showing in the video). This is my remote download base station. By the way, the nasty sound belongs to a monkey fight.
– They are fighting over what, you think?
Usually food, unless there is a second group there.
– But usually the groups are not interfering with each other, right? They use different territories.
What I have seen so far is that they kind of stick to their territories. But like I said, there is very few studies on this, so part of this study is going to look at that, the territoriality and co-ranging dynamics. How does one group push another group, how often they come into contact with each other? The preliminary work I have done in Singapore, my groups never occupy the same space at the same time. You have a very narrow band, maybe a meter or two, of shared space. But it was about a month apart, temporally. When monkeys do interact at the edge, it is often a violent, quick fight, and then they go back to their own territories. It is usually not a long protracted event, not for monkeys in general, but at least for long-tailed macaques.
– The ones that you are working on specifically?
Yes, I actually have no idea about the patterns among other species – but the long-tailed macaques tend to have really quick territorial bouts, and then they move on. Out of my three field seasons, I have seen two, maybe three of them (fights). It is possible there are several other groups in this area that just now it could have been another group that came too close to this groups’ territory. This is a decent size group, what that means is that we might have multiple matrilines. Matrilines occur along the female genetic lineage. Some matrilines have a strong dominance hierarchy between them, and they might squabble amongst each other. So maybe a group of females and her female relatives just got mad at another group of females – a family spat if you will
– Alright, so back to the process..
My remote download base station, although for how unimpressive looking it is, costs 3,000 USD. Like I told Kathy earlier, sometimes the monkeys get really interested in what I am doing, and sometimes, especially the adult males see I have bags on me, and they want to come and check it out.
Hmm, should I eat this or not? In order to collect saliva samples, Amy is soaking these swabs in snow cone syrup. Photo by Bilgenur Baloglu
– To see if there is any food, or something else?
To see if there is any food, or they do not like that I am holding antenna. Monkeys do not like when you wave sticks in the air.
– Does it look aggressive to them?
It does. Usually because I track them regularly, they get used to me being around. But I have just started this tracking process, so these monkeys are not really used to seeing me and this stick (antenna). So, when we first came in here, I had a larger silver antenna out. Most of the monkeys were on the street and they all moved up onto the tree. A few of them barked to alarm call at me, because I am walking around, holding a stick into them, and that is aggressive to them. So as time goes on, they will get more and more used to me being in this area with this antenna, and they will realize that I am not a threat to them. But when I can, I try to just sit still, and not walk around with the sticks. I try to actually not even bother tracking them if I can avoid it. Because if I can just find the individual with the collar, everybody is happier. I have been chased a few times because they have been upset that I am holding the antenna, if I ever need to drop any of my equipment, I would drop everything before I would drop this $3000 box.
– Also, the computer you would drop then.
I will drop the computer, it is a 200 dollar computer (laughter). I will give the monkeys almost anything other than my passport maybe, my work ID card, and this box.
– So how do you hold the antenna to get the signal? There should be some tricky way of it, right?
It is kind of black magic, I will be honest. I thought I had a system figured out my first season. Then I feel like it slowly unravelled into like doing rain dances to get my data. So what happens is, I plug in the entire unit and so the remote download base station is connected to the antenna. I found, well this might just be my personal trick, or my personal mind game that I play with myself, I think it downloads better when I hold the two units together like this (demonstrated in the video), so I always do this. I have decided that this is the way to download data. And I open up the program and my netbook, and all you need is a simple netbook that runs a Windows platform.
– You just connect the box via a USB port?
Yes, and the computer runs the collar program, in my case I use Telemetry Solutions Collars, and so their program is called Quantum GPS.
– So are you trying to collect GPS signal data?
First, I track the monkeys with VHF radio signal. The radio signal gives the beeping sound as I approach the collared monkey indicating its proximity. The signal gets stronger the closer I get to the monkey. Within the GPS collar, the data gets taken and connected by satellite and stored in the collar. Then, through this unit, it is telling the satellites to tell the GPS collar to download the data to my netbook. Basically what this unit is doing is talking to the satellites. The satellites talk to the collar, which then talks back to the satellites, and satellites talk back to me. On a good day, I point at the monkey, and in 30 seconds data is downloaded. There have been times though, where the monkey is as close as you are to me, I could honestly beat the monkey with this antenna, and I will follow that monkey for 45 minutes, and the data will not download, and all of a sudden for no apparent reason it downloads.
– Well, maybe you do not put the unit and antenna together (laughter).
And then I am like how about this way or that way (demonstrates in the video). After about half an hour I start looking ridiculous, trying to download, because I will wave this thing any way to get it to download. Sometimes, it will download half way, and then stop, and that is the biggest let down.
– Will you need to start from the scratch in that case?
I will get half of the data, and the rest will be easier to download since there will be less. But it is so disheartening when most of it is downloaded and then it stops.
– Ok, so that is the process. How will you track the collared monkeys?
Each monkey has a special VHF signal for its collar and a serial number for data download.
– How many monkeys are being collared right now?
Right now, 6. So the National Parks Board here in Singapore, the organization that allows my research to happen and grants my permits, are also interested in the project. They just ordered 10 additional collars. So ultimately, we are going to have 16 collars in total, which is going to be the largest deployment on wild macaques in Asia, I think on captive ones too for that matter. There may be a similar size study on spider monkeys in South America, but I am not quite sure on how many collars they have, so it is going to be far and away one of the biggest study on home ranges that utilizes GPS. And hopefully, we will help pave the way for more of these studies. Because it is just a financial investment, people are hesitant to write grants for these without kind of proof of concept. So hopefully, this will provide a substantial proof of concept. Especially as technology gets better, it gets cheaper and so GPS collars will become what radio collars used to be. Radio collars used to be expensive, now they are a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand.
– So, that is the expectation.
Right. And also they are going to get smaller (in size). That has been another reason why these projects have been limited in scope, is that actually the battery life and the battery size. You are only supposed to collar animals of %5 of their body weight. We prefer to keep it closer to %3, if we can.
– In Turkey, bears, wolfs and some vultures have been collared, those are the ones I know. But it is the first time I am hearing the macaques getting collared.
Yes, long-tailed macaques are quite small, they are the size of a large house cat. Actually that is how I field-tested my collars for the very first time, when I got the collars in the US. I knew the macaques were roughly the size of cats, and so I put a programmed collar on my smallest house cat, and watched her leap six feet onto a fence and decided that she could move just fine. I was like, alright, her movement is not inhibited, and the monkeys are much stronger than my house cat. It turned out to be a pretty good success. There are other collars that we would like to try on these monkeys, ones that utilize the GSM cell networks. They are a little heavier. So I am just kind of waiting for the technology to catch up. Because we do not want to tax them (physically), or inhibit their movements. You can see, they jump around the trees a lot, we do not need something that really weighs them down, especially on a place like the neck. Because you cannot really put the collar anywhere else, other than a neck.
– Ok, thanks a lot for sharing the details of your research project with us. Have fun collaring and tracking them. Hope you will not need more of these rain dances 🙂
If you want to find out more information on her research, here is Amy’s National Geographic column:
Here is her blog with one of her colleagues: http://twogirlsandsomemonkeys.tumblr.com/