Dr. Laura K. Marsh answers your questions
I thought expeditions into the Amazon ended in the 1800s. Is there really anything new to find there?
Great question! Certainly many important expeditions were done at that time, but expeditions into the Amazon, which covers Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia, have continued through the present day. This is a vast region, larger than some continents, and it is impossible to know everything. Large expeditions like ours are more rare, typically because of funding restrictions. However, small field research expeditions for 2 - 4 weeks are often carried out, even by local field biologists.
It happens that where we are going for Houseboat Amazon is a region that is difficult and expensive to get to and to explore. For Pithecia vanzolinii, the last collecting expedition, meaning they went to an area and shot every animal they could find to take back to a museum for study, was in the 1930s. Other Brazilian research projects have been conducted in the region, but none have seen the sakis we are looking for and none have gone for as long or as far as we will go.
In this era of climate change, the scarier prospect is not doing expeditions, as data are showing as much as an 80% decrease in normal bird populations, due to longer, more pronounced droughts in the Amazon (Dr. Betty Loiselle, pers comm). We are off to set a baseline, at a time when populations of all species, including plants, may be severely impacted.
Why is this expedition important?
This particular expedition is important for several reasons. First, there are no other primates that I know of that we have seen museum specimens for, but we have not seen alive in the wild. It's a big deal to lose to science something as large as a monkey! If we can determine that these sakis are truly extinct, and that is unlikely because the region they live in is so big they must still be there, they would be one of the first primates in modern history to be declared extinct!
This expedition is more than finding the missing monkey, though. We are doing a "wall to wall" mammal survey and will be reporting on everything we encounter. A baseline data set for this region has not been established. What does that mean? It means we can also learn about hunting, fishing, and forest use by local and indigenous people living in the area. Once we understand what lives in the forest and what the people's needs are in that area, we can work with them to develop conservation and education goals that meet the needs of all. At present, this region does not have major conservation protection. It is at the farthest reaches of the Arc of Deforestation in Brazil, meaning the cities and population growth is there, but has not completely taken over all of the forest rendering it a patchwork of fragments, as has been done in neighboring Rondonia state.
And then there's climate change. Climate change is not a thing to "believe" in or not. It is a phenomenon that is occurring. I suppose you could agree or disagree with the interpretation of the data, but the data shows that the world is warming, weather is changing -- and the Amazon rainforest is drying out. Learning what we can before even more species shift and died from climate change is mandatory throughout the world, but particularly in biodiverse regions like the Amazon rainforest.
All animals are important to the maintenance of their habitat. This is particularly true in rainforest where the interconnectedness of animals and plants is so close, one often cannot survive without the other. Sakis are seed predators and while we are unclear about what that means to rainforest alone, we know that primates in general are intimate managers of rainforest: pruning, seed dispersing, and like with sakis, managers of the trees they eat by not letting them over saturate a region.
If we lose even one species, ecosystems start to collapse internally. The more we lose, the more it impacts humans. If rainforest is gone, so goes our cloud forming factories and our carbon sinks. Both mandatory for climate control.
Why do you think you are the ones who can make this expedition happen?
Every team is different. Think of the Avengers vs Guardians of the Galaxy. Each of these teams are unique because of the skills and personalities of the team members. Both ultimately achieve their goals, but do so in very different ways. Our team is uniquely qualified to develop and execute this expedition because together we fill in all of the necessary gaps for the project.
We all are trained field biologists, but as you will see on our "About" page, we each bring a critical role to the success of this project. Understand, a big expedition like this is not only about doing good science and seeing interesting things. It is about the logistics, the planning, the organizing, and execution of the expedition itself which is why I picked everyone I did. Everyone on the HBA Team is committed to this project, are good at what they do, and have experience doing those things for other expeditions.
This all sounds like an adventure. Is it really science?
In the Amazon -- science is always adventure! The two are the same. Rainforest in unpredicatable. The animals we are looking for are unpredictable. And every day the forest wakes up and shifts a bit, so even if you saw something one day, one hour in a certain tree, it will change. The excitement of discovery is always a part of Amazon work. And--living on a houseboat, eating the fish we catch, bathing in the river, keeping our electronic equipment dry in the 100% humidity -- all of it is challenging adventure.
All of science, physics, chemistry, biology -- all of it tells a story. The stories are as different and interesting as any fiction novels out there. But science in the Amazon for us is based on observation -- and that's where YOU the public come in!
Because of social media and the availability of video cameras, we can bring the story of our work -- on the houseboat with each other, to the forest where we will discover interesting animals and plants -- to you. With the documentary film we are proposing to make, everyone will get a chance to share in the adventure of science.
Will we be getting daily updates on your progress?
I hope so! We are looking into satellite phones and links right now so that we will be able to live stream. If we cannot, we will "package" reports and send them out to our colleague in Cruzeiro do Sul, Dr. Marco Athaydes, who will be able to upload the information to the webiste. We will try to be as "live" as possible from the middle of the remote, no electricity available jungle! But remember, it IS remote, so if you don't hear from us, don't panic!
Where will you get your electricity in the middle of the jungle?
The houseboat ("barco") is wired to the on board electrical system. There are lights and plugs in the cabins and throughout the boat. That will be great for a back up system, but we are bringing a full series of solar panels and batteries to wire the boat and for powering our equipment. We will also have at least two gas generators. The diesel engine of the barco uses a lot of fuel, so we want to conserve it as much as possible by using solar and generators.
How would you even know this is the right monkey even if you did see it?
Have you seen this guy?
First, sakis (the Pithecia genus) are very distinct. Read about them here.
And second, these are the only saki monkeys -- in fact the only monkeys in the Amazon forest -- who have very buffy-gold arms and legs with a black body!
Seriously, we can't miss them!