Mainer has no time to monkey around

Posted Sept. 09, 2009, at 9:43 p.m.

NORTHPORT, Maine — Meg Crofoot spends her days chasing white-faced capuchins, smallish monkeys, through the rainforest on an island in the Panama Canal. She knows 40 of the monkeys by sight.

They are funny and also feisty denizens of the tropics, whose social habits got Crofoot’s attention as a primate researcher.

She’s trying to get answers to one vexing question in particular. The capuchins sometimes engage in battles between different groups, and Crofoot wants to know why some monkeys rush into the fray, while other “cheaters” hang back, incurring none of the risk, but enjoying the benefits of a victory.

It’s a long way from Waldo County, where Crofoot grew up. She returned to Bayside recently for a late-summer visit with family and friends. It is where she learned to love the outdoors, rambling through the woods and along the beach.

“My favorite part of my job is that I get to play outside. And I think that definitely has roots in growing up here, on the beach,” Crofoot said in a recent interview in Northport. “I spent most of my summer in the ocean.

“My work is playing in the forest, and that makes me really happy.”

After graduating from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor in 1997, Crofoot attended Stanford University, then earned a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard University. For her graduate research, Crofoot first studied orangutans in Western Borneo. But after one field season, illegal logging made the remote research site unsafe.

Since 2004 she has been doing research on Panama’s Barro Colorado Island.

Barro Colorado was created when a Panama Canal dam left a hilltop protruding from Lake Gatun. Now the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has a field station on BCI, as it is known, and it is one of the best-studied tropical forests on the planet.

Among the island’s unique features is a radio telemetry grid, which Crofoot manages. With seven, 130-foot-tall towers, the entire 6-square-mile island is covered. Crofoot uses the system to track radio-collared monkeys. Other researchers are tracking anteaters, frogs, ocelots and agoutis.

“Part of what is cool about it is the data flows back live via wireless network, so at any given moment we can log on to our computers and see where our animals are,” she said.

The fieldwork comes with occupational hazards, including thick undergrowth, torrential rain, Africanized bees, bullet ants (named for their painful stings), and venomous snakes.

“We had a fer-de-lance [pit viper] near the dorms not that long ago,” said Crofoot. “They are real pretty, but you definitely don’t want to get bitten by one.”

Crofoot often picks hundreds of ticks from her clothes in a day, but she has seen worse. “In Borneo they have land leeches,” she said. “So you are walking through the forest and rather than getting ticks, you end up with 50 leeches all over your pants.”

And there is rain, by the bucket. Regular and torrential this time of year, the rain makes the steep hillsides of the island treacherously slippery.

“We’re hacking off-trail 90 percent of the day, just crashing through,” Crofoot says. “And because it is a nature reserve, no machetes. So it’s physically pretty arduous. And right now, because the soil is pretty waterlogged, you are just sliding all over the place.”

Even with the hardships, watching monkeys can be boring at times.

“Monkeys spend a lot of the day doing not a whole lot,” Crofoot said. “The saving grace is that every day they do something that is hilarious. There’s usually one thing that is interesting or funny.”

She said some of her monkeys have conspicuous field marks or traits — Celia has a spot on her forehead, and Ruben is always thrashing around. And after months of observation, she has learned to simply recognize them as individuals.

“In the same way that you see human faces and recognize them, there’s a sort of Gestalt,” she explained. “It takes a lot of time staring at their faces.”

Crofoot is completing the first year of a five-year post-doctoral fellowship co-funded by Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Max Planck Institute. She also is working as a lecturer for Princeton University, which has field courses in Panama.

She will be returning to Panama on Sept. 14 and expects to spend the next four years of her fellowship there.

Crofoot’s current research grew out of her earlier studies on turf battles between groups of monkeys. She found that large groups of monkeys usually beat smaller groups, but smaller groups regularly win when fighting at the center of their home ranges. It made her wonder how individual behaviors shape the outcome of battles.

A preliminary observation is that several older females seem to be “super-involved” in the battles, more so than any other monkeys.

Next, she wants to figure out how monkeys identify the cheaters who don’t step up in battle, and if they punish them.

For every answer she tracks down, Crofoot said, she develops more research ideas. “So far, I have so many more ideas than I have time, or money or energy to answer.”

For more information on Meg Crofoot’s experiences in Panama, go to http://returntopanamania.blogspot.com/. For information on the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute go to http://www.stri.org/.

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