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Capuchins, Caatinga and Conservation: The role of behaviour and personality shaping successful reintroductions

By Mikaela Gerwing, a PhD student at Concordia University

Bearded capuchin monkeys (Sapajus libidinosus) are famous for their use of tools, using large stones to crack open fruits. This is a skill that is necessary for their survival that is passed down through social learning, and trial and error – so what happens when a monkey doesn’t have a social group to learn from or have access to wild foods and stones for practice? We put them in school! In Brazil, the government-run wildlife rescue centres (hereafter CETAS) accept, confiscate and rescue thousands of animals every year. For example, monkeys are frequently rescued from illegal trafficking, are turned over to the government, or found injured or orphaned. When a capuchin monkey arrives at CETAS, their journey back to the wild is often a long one, as they have never had the opportunity to learn and develop the skills necessary to survive in the wild. The goal for these wildlife rescue centres is to successfully reintroduce animals back into the wild amongst a social group of other individuals that was formed at the CETAS centre. The path from rescue to reintroduction is one of many considerations – from ensuring the health and safety of every monkey, to navigating individual personalities to ensure the formation of a cohesive social group. It is during this journey towards reintroduction that rehabilitation workers will provide the monkeys with the opportunity to learn skills like cracking open fruits, giving them the training necessary to be able to survive in the wild. I am interested in how a monkey’s behaviour and personality may correlate with a successful reintroduction. I’m particularly interested in stereotypic behaviours –  the often repetitive actions associated with stress or discomfort in captive animals – and how these behaviours relate to personality and external factors like length of time in captivity or age at rescue. I am also curious as to how these stereotypic behaviours impact an individual’s behavioural diversity. Do capuchin monkeys who engage in more stereotypies show reduced behavioural diversity by re-playing certain stress-motivated behaviours over and over, thereby limiting natural behaviours? If that is the case, then the rehabilitation process can act as a method to increase behavioural diversity and encourage behavioural plasticity – traits that will positively impact a monkey’s ability to acclimate and flourish in the wild.

Wild juvenile bearded capuchin monkey (Sapajus libidinosus) in northeastern Brazil.

The Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science (QCBS) Excellence award helped fund a five month field season in northeastern Brazil in 2023. I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Sarah Turner, my supervisor at Concordia, in collaboration with my co-supervisor Dr. Renata Ferreira and her students at the Universidade Federale do Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), located in Natal, Brazil. I spent around three months in Natal, observing and collecting behavioural data on capuchin monkeys in the CETAS centre alongside my field assistant. I spent the latter half of my time in Brazil based at the reintroduction site in the state of Ceará with another field assistant, planning and preparing to bring a small group of monkeys to be released back into their natural semi-arid habitat in the Caatinga biome. This preparation also included working with the local community, a nonprofit organization, and researchers from UFRN to share knowledge and collaborate on conservation initiatives. I conducted in-depth interviews with community members and a series of presentations at local schools and community associations to better understand opinions on wildlife and nature, and to share details about our project. During this time, I also had the opportunity to get to know the plant and invertebrate biodiversity of the Caatinga. I was able to observe the release of a group of monkeys in a soft-release enclosure. This is an outdoor enclosure that allows them to observe and adjust to their new home (the forest), while hopefully integrating with the group of wild monkeys. Post-release monitoring was done using camera traps and ultra high frequency radio collars, and working with local community members and government officials. 

Observing behaviour at the CETAS centre in Natal, Brazil.

Observing monkeys – or any animals – in close proximity over extended periods of time is a unique experience that allows one to really get to know every individual for who they are. Beyond knowing the monkeys, researchers will unwittingly develop a relationship with them simply by sharing space over time. If I am conducting a focal sample observation (monitoring every behaviour performed by a single monkey during a set period of time) on a monkey and I sneeze, the monkey’s reaction to that sneeze integrates me as the researcher into the behavioural observation itself. This is one of the elements of behavioural research that grips me, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to do this work, thanks in part to the QCBS Excellence award. I am hopeful that my research will help rescue centres better understand and prepare capuchin monkeys for reintroduction – a process that not only provides the monkeys with an opportunity to return to the wild, but can have positive effects on biodiversity conservation through species and ecosystem protection, expanding public awareness and conservation education.

Speaking about our project at a school local to the release site in northeastern Brazil.

About the author:

Mikaela Gerwing is a wildlife conservation biologist and current PhD student at Concordia University, working in the department of Geography, Planning and Environment under the supervision of Dr. Sarah Turner and Dr. Renata Ferreira in the Primatology and Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies (PIES) Lab. Her research focus is threefold: the rehabilitation and reintroduction of bearded capuchin monkeys in the Brazilian Caatinga, human-wildlife coexistence in the area of release, and the effectiveness and ethical integrity of wildlife rescue centres in the areas of animal welfare, human welfare and conservation.

Mikaela holds a BSc. in Natural Resources Conservation, Global Perspectives from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (2019) and an MS in Nonprofit Management from Columbia University, New York (2022). She has worked and volunteered in wildlife conservation and rehabilitation in four continents with countless animals, and most notably, spent two years working as a conservation biologist and the volunteer coordinator for Taricaya Eco Reserve and Rescue Center in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. Mikaela is passionate about wildlife conservation and reintroduction, community development, and animal welfare, with a particular affinity towards primates, elephants and bears.

Website: mikaelaswildlife.com

Email: mikaela.gerwing[at]gmail.com | mikaelaswildlife[at]gmail.com 

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/mikaela-gerwing

Instagram: @mikaelaswildlife 

Facebook: facebook.com/mikaelaswildlife

X: @mikaelagerwing 

Post date: June 06, 2024


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