The Science behind Houseboat Amazon

What if you had the opportunity to follow a woman-lead science expedition into the deepest, most unknown reaches of the Amazon, knowing it would invoke the same sense of wonder, passion, and excitement as watching someone wrestle a caiman or leap from a cliff in a flight suit?
— Dr. Laura K. Marsh, Expedition Leader

We have set sail on a South American houseboat, during high water season, to the Alto Rio Jurua watershed in western Brazil to conduct the first ever full mammal survey of this remote region and search for a monkey that has not been seen alive here in over 80 years.  We also will show the world what real science, data collection, and adventure looks like!  

We are all familiar with adrenaline pumped media adventures where people challenge themselves with new hot equipment as they hurtle down the river, mountain, ocean, snow, sky. Or entertainment shows where people capture dangerous, rare, or difficult creatures to demonstrate the thrill of it.

This project is about diving into exploration. It is about shedding preconceived notions of science and adventure, and wrapping all who join us in the awe that is the daily discovery of the Amazon rainforest.

The journal where Dr. Marsh published her findings.

The journal where Dr. Marsh published her findings.

We start with a museum mystery. In the 1930s, the Olalla Brothers, known for their collection of wild animals for museums, hunted 36 individuals of the now missing flying monkeys.  The skins from these monkeys are now preserved in four different museums.  

When Houseboat Amazon Expedition Leader Dr. Laura K. Marsh revised the saki monkey genus [Here (Part I) and Here (Part 2)] she discovered that one species, Pithecia vanzolinii, had not been seen or photographed alive since they were originally collected in the 1930s. They seem to have vanished from science.  All science knows about this species is from the skins and skulls. We can only guess about how they live, what they eat, and how the fit into their ecosystem.  Now we have a rainforest detective story.

The Houseboat Amazon Science Expedition is an international team of seven wildlife professionals from Brazil, the U.S., Colombia, and Mexico; a Cruzeiro do Sul-based houseboat captain and crew; Brazilian students and scientists; and a group of rural guides. 

We will live on rivers among lush, untouched, 100-foot trees covered in their own communities of bromiliads, rainbow-colored poison dart frogs, thigh-thick lianas, toucans and scarlet macaws, oscelots, and roaring howler monkeys.  

Pithecia vanzolinii.  Female and male.

Pithecia vanzolinii.  Female and male.

Parauacus, or flying saki monkeys (called mono volador in Spanish or macaco voo in Portuguese), is a genus of monkeys that are medium-sized, quiet, cryptic, live in small groups, have huge canines for cracking hard-shelled nuts, and run so lightly through the treetops it seems like flying -- with their fluffy, non-prehensile tails waving behind them.

The target species, Pithecia vanzolinii, are distinctive monkeys like no other primate that might live nearby.  They are especially notable for their buffy-colored arms and legs. They were named for Pablo Vanzolini, a famous Brazilian biologist, and musician.

The species has not been photographed alive, so that's why we can only show you a drawing, which was based off of knowledge of the genus and the museum specimen skins.

We will conduct surveys to document all of the amazing mammals in the watershed and to search for the missing monkey using four small motorboats. These will venture out from the houseboat base daily, each with a guide and 1 or 2 researchers.  Each small boat will have a GoPro video camera and all team members will document findings using video and still cameras.  We also will deploy camera traps, and ANABAT passive bat ecolocation recording devices to record everything we see. 

We also will be deploying a conservation drone.  It will search from above, help us to identify open waterways and collect video about the uncharted forest canopy.

We will go during high water season to maximize the chances of finding mammals and the monkey, and because navigating dense rain forest is easier by boat than on foot.  During high water season the rivers can become 50-feet deep. 

We will go during high water season to maximize the chances of finding mammals and the monkey, and because navigating dense rain forest is easier by boat than on foot.  During high water season the rivers can become 50-feet deep. 

The Pithecia vanzolinii specimens were collected near a town called Eirunepe (upper right on the map) --four days boat ride from Cruzeiro do Sul on Rio Jurua. It is the only known range for Vanzolini’s saki monkeys.

The expedition will begin in Eirunepe and be based in Cruzeiro do Sul, the largest nearby town.

This is our houseboat!

This is our houseboat!

Daily we got out onto the rivers (and terra firme) to conduct surveys. We leave the houseboat on small boats like this.

Daily we got out onto the rivers (and terra firme) to conduct surveys. We leave the houseboat on small boats like this.

These are the main river channels we will cover to conduct the comprehensive survey and look for P vanzolinii. The houseboat will be based along these, changing location every few weeks or so.  Small boats will fan out from here to conduct the detailed searches and to document nearly everything the researchers see.

These are the main river channels we will cover to conduct the comprehensive survey and look for P vanzolinii. The houseboat will be based along these, changing location every few weeks or so.  Small boats will fan out from here to conduct the detailed searches and to document nearly everything the researchers see.

We will not just be looking for the target species.  Because there has never been an expedition for mammals into this area, we will record the full compliment of expected rainforest creatures: caimen, piranha, anacondas, jaguars, tapirs, capyberra, pink dolphins, 15 species of primates, giant otters, thousands of birds, insects, reptiles, and fish.

The region where these monkeys were last seen is one of the last bastions of intact rainforest of incredible biodiversity, with the potential of >600 bird, >200 mammal, and >130 amphibian species. The watershed, some 43,000 square miles, does not fall within Brazilian nationally protected habitat.

Below are images of some of the animals we expect to encounter and document.  We expect these species to live in the survey area, but no one knows for sure, because a large-scale survey such as we will conduct has never been undertaken.  And --- who knows what else we will find!

Mounting this expedition means that there are sure to be new discoveries, even if our motivating goal was to find a missing monkey species.
— Dr. Laura K. Marsh

A very important part of our survey work will involve meeting people in rural communities and indigenous zones who know the area well and who can tell us about what they hunt for food. 

Although this region is remote and difficult to access, the region is increasingly encroached upon by the expanding demands of urban populations. Local rural villages, indigenous people, including “uncontacted” tribes near Envira, are hunting and fishing without limits. Worrisome plans would incorporate the watershed into Florestas Nacionais, allowing for timber extraction concessions with roads, large trucks, and wholesale deforestation. The fear in far southwestern Amazonia is that the study region will become part of the “Arc of Deforestation” that has ravaged nearby Rondonia.

We are engaged in “muddy boots” research involving high-tech activities that call attention to this remarkable species-rich area of the Amazon. 

To do this, we are promoting international collaboration through our excellent social media campaign, which will include a wide global audience making it possible for rural, local, and city school children, students, and public to participate. 

In modern society, we are disconnected from nature. We yearn to touch our internal wild-ness. We suit up, go to work in an indoor office and hunger to be connected to something native, raw, intense. When viewers follow the expedition, they see wildness existing somewhere, affirming that it also exists in them.  Our intention with Houseboat Amazon is to remind us of who are at our core: intense, curious, and excited.

We invite you to join us in our daily lives while we live and work together for four months on a 60-foot houseboat, where three languages will be spoken (Portuguese, English, and Spanish). 

Find your passion hidden in a tangle of vines, the splash of a pink dolphin, or the flutter of a giant blue morpho’s wings. And maybe, just maybe, find it in a fluffy missing monkey.

Become the wild in wilderness. Join us to find your heart in the jungle. 


Scientific Abstract (English)

An expedition in search of Pithecia vanzolinii in the Alto Rio Jurua Watershed, Brazil:  A monkey that has not been seen alive since the 1930s

We will launch an expedition into an unknown Amazonian watershed, the Alto Rio Jurua, Brazil, to find an endemic saki monkey—Pithecia vanzolinii—that has not been seen alive there for over 80 years.  Our only evidence for the existence there of this saki comes from 36 specimens in four museums.  P. vanzolinii seems to have vanished from science.  It’s a rainforest detective story. We will travel during flood season to maximize our chances of finding the sakis. The entire team—six primary researchers, six local guides, ten staff—will live for three to five months on a houseboat as a floating research station.  Shifting locations along the main river channels, we will conduct transects using small boats piloted by local guides.  Our conservation drones will search from above.  We will characterize the habitat and wildlife using photos, video, and mapping. The region where P. vanzolinii was last seen is a biodiversity Hotspqot. The watershed, some 43,000 square miles, does not fall within a nationally protected area. Although currently remote and difficult to access, it is increasingly being encroached upon by the expanding demands of urban populations. The fear in far southwestern Amazonia is that the region will become part of the “Arc of Deforestation” that has ravaged nearby Rondonia. Mounting an expedition, even if the goal is to find one missing monkey species, always means there will be new discoveries, new ways to educate the local and worldwide public, and new ways to provide conservation in a region as a result. 

Resumo (Português)

EXPEDIÇÃO CIENTÍFICA EM BUSCA DE Pithecia vanzolinii NO ALTO RIO JURUÁ, BRAZIL: UM PRIMATA QUE NÃO É VISTO VIVO DESDE 1930

Nós partiremos em uma expedição para uma região pouco conhecida da Bacia Amazônica, o alto Rio Juruá, em busca de uma espécie de parauacú endêmica – Pithecia vanzolini – que não é visto vivo há quase 90 anos. As únicas evidências da ocorrência deste primata na natureza são 36 peles depositadas em quatro museus. Aparentemente, P. vanzolinii foi esquecido pela ciência. Nós viajaremos durante a estação cheia a fim de maximizar as chances de avistar os parauacús na floresta inundada. Toda a equipe – nove pesquisadores especialistas, seis guias locais, dez auxiliares de campo – ficará alojada durante cinco meses num barco que funcionará como estação de pesquisa flutuante. A busca pelo primata será realizada com barco nos principais rios, e com o uso de pequenas lanchas rápidas (voadeiras) ao longo de transectos nos canais fluviais menores. Além do uso das embarcações, drones percorrerão o dossel da floresta realizando a busca aérea pela espécie. O habitat e a vida selvagem serão registrados através de fotos, vídeos e mapeamento. A região do último avistamento de P. vanzolinii é uma área prioritária para a conservação da de biodiversidade (Hotspot). Apesar de sua importância, a área do Alto Rio Juruá, que abrange cerca de 11.136.947,00 ha, não é protegida por nenhuma unidade de conservação. Mesmo sendo uma região remota e de difícil acesso, atualmente está sendo pressionada pelas crescentes demandas das populações urbanas. Por isso, teme-se que a porção sudoeste da Amazônia seja englobada pelo “Arco do Desmatamento”, que já atinge os limites do estado de Rondônia. Mesmo que o objetivo principal da expedição seja encontrar uma espécie de primata desaparecida, ela pode contribuir com a conservação desta região, ainda pouco conhecida. Além de ser uma ótima oportunidade para novas descobertas científicas e novos meios de educar os públicos local e mundial.


Global Forest Watch, has put together a global forest interactive map where its shown the change in total forest cover and infrastructure of the zone we are going to explore.  Click the map to interact with the information: