Penn Students Spend A Summer With Owl Monkeys — and Learn More Than Primatology

It’s almost as far away from Philadelphia urban life as one can imagine. Or, to be precise, it’s a 14-hour plane ride followed by a 16-hour bus ride capped by a 40-minute ride in a truck away from the University of Pennsylvania campus.

This past summer, nine students from Penn embarked on this journey to Formosa, Argentina, to study owl monkeys in their natural habitat. The students, both undergraduate and graduate, pursued research under the guidance of Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences.

They received support to make the trip from a variety of sources at Penn, including the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring program, Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, Penn Museum, Latin American and Latino Studies Program and International Internship Program as well as from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation through grants to Fernandez-Duque.

Fernandez-Duque has long studied the behavioral dynamics of owl monkeys, one of the few monogamous primate species. But knowledge of monkey biology and behavior was only part of what the students gained from their time abroad.

“I always emphasize to my students that you’re missing the point if you think that you’re just going to learn about monkeys,” says Fernandez-Duque.

Other lessons are cultural, practical — even personal.

“Some students are having their first experience in another country,” Fernandez-Duque says. “But it’s not like going to Paris or London. They’re going into the middle of a completely different culture, with a different language and very different customs.”

The Penn students spent their days without cell phones, without Facebook. Showers were only available once a week, when they a made the trip into Formosa City to stay at Penn’s field station in town. Otherwise, the forest was their bathroom. Days began before dawn and followed a Latin rhythm, including an afternoon siesta and a meal cooked by the group in the evenings, often variations on stewed vegetables with rice or pasta, with dulce de leche and fruit for dessert. Nights were spent playing cards or discussing research before turning in early to do it over again.

The novelty of such an internship was what drew in Lili McKinley, a sophomore from Danville, Pa.

“I had already spent time working in a lab and wanted an outdoor experience,” she says. “I also wanted to improve my Spanish so I felt like this opportunity was a perfect fit.”

She received a grant from the Penn Museum and the International Internship Program to travel to Argentina. Though McKinley is still deciding on her major, she embraced the chance to experience field work and a new culture.

“It was neat culturally because the people in Formosa were not that familiar with foreigners,” McKinley said. “There was a woman we met who wanted us to practice speaking English with her daughter. It was nice to have that interaction with people when we weren’t in the field.”

At the quincho, or field site on the Guaycolec Ranch, McKinley’s days began around 5:30 a.m. when she would wake up, breakfast on bread and jam and then walk a mile through cattle pastures to the forest. Owl monkeys are most active at dawn and dusk, so it was important to locate them before they settled in for their morning nap. McKinley and fellow students would observe the animals for a couple of hours, noting their behavior and collecting fecal samples for hormone analysis before returning to camp for lunch and a siesta. Then they’d head back out in the field to observe the monkeys for a while longer before meeting to walk back to camp at dinnertime.

After learning the basics of the research methods, McKinley pursued more specific research on vocalizations, even putting her Spanish skills to use by translating the research team’s vocalization ethogram, or the catalog of sounds the monkeys make, from Spanish into English.

In her final report on the internship, McKinley wrote, “The program was the best learning experience of my life.”

For anthropology Ph.D. student Andrea Spence-Aizenberg, this summer was also one of learning, though it was not the first she has spent doing field research. Her four years working in Fernandez-Duque’s lab have taken her to Ecuador as well as Argentina to study the relationships of owl monkeys.

“I’m very interested in how pair bonds are formed and maintained behaviorally,” says Spence-Aizenberg.

In particular, she has focused on how monkeys communicate with potential and current partners, including their use of olfactory cues.

This past summer, she spent two months in the Argentine forest collecting female monkeys’ fecal samples, which will be analyzed for hormonal levels.

“I want to see if the frequency of behaviors like scent marking, sniffing one another and copulation match up with hormone levels throughout a female’s cycle,” she says. “We’ll compare that with behavioral observations and see if we find some interesting patterns.”

For Spence-Aizenberg, the change in pace that field work entails is welcome.

“Personally I find it incredibly relaxing and energizing,” she says. “You go out in the field, you do your work, you come back for lunch and rest. You don’t have to worry about checking email; all you have to do is focus on being in the field, enjoying where you are, experiencing the forest and watching monkeys.”

Though as a graduate student Spence-Aizenberg has committed to a deep study of monkey behavior, Fernandez-Duque says that the experience of field work in a remote site can be extremely valuable for undergraduates who have no intention of going on to pursue further work in biology or anthropology.

“I had a student who had never been in the field and didn’t have a strong desire to go because he couldn’t see how this fit with his plan of studying chemistry,” Fernandez-Duque says. “But I convinced him and he ended up going to Ecuador to the middle of the Amazon rain forest, the most biodiverse place on Earth.”

Although the student went on to pursue chemistry in college and graduate school, Fernandez-Duque says he doesn’t regret sending him into the field.

“This was not a forest person before, but now, if you go talk to him about logging the forest, you’ll find you’ve got yourself a big supporter of conservation and other important global issues,” he says. “It was a transforming experience for him.”

Fernandez-Duque plans to continue offering these perspective-shifting experiences for students, both for those whose passion is primatology and for those who simply desire a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about a different environment and culture. Thanks to continued funding from Penn and new National Science Foundation and National Institute on Aging awards, he can now offer summer internships for undergraduates for another three years.