Between September and November last year I volunteered as a research assistant on a phD study looking and sociality and health in Barbary Macaques.
The research looked at how time spent in body contact with others, self-grooming, grooming others and other social behaviours, influenced the build up of parasites in a group of macaques resident in the Affenberg Salem reserve in Southern Germany. This reserve houses three groups of macaques, two of which interact with paying members of the public, while the third, our study group, has little interaction if none with the public. The macaques are described as semi-free, which means they can potentially be released into the wild. Humans influence their lifestyle by feeding them once a day, being present in the forest as researchers, and trapping females to implant hormone control.
I learned to individually identify the macaques, first by learning gender-age classes, and then distinguishing amongst these classes using facial features, size, fur colour, personality etc. Each day I followed 8-9 focal animals for forty minutes, logging any social behaviours using a pre-established behavioural ethogram. Mainly we noted time spent in body contact with others, and whether this was friendly, aggressive, or sexual. While carrying out focal sampling we would also do an instantaneous scan, and note down on every minute whether the individual was: located on the ground/not ground; position (sitting, lying etc.); activity (feeding, resting etc.); food type if feeding; whether or not cheek pouches were full. After each focal the researchers would then work as a team to carry out a group scan. Each of us had our own area, and at the start of the twenty minutes we would walk to this area, and then scan, recording all of the macaques present. We would note their location (using GPS points marked on trees), their height, position, activity, whether or not they were in body contact with other individuals, and food type if they were feeding.
Another element of our work was collecting faecal and urine samples. While carrying out focals, if our focal animal defecated, we would take time out from the focal to collect the sample and record it. Each sample was split into two tubs, which were marked by individual, date, time, consistency, and GPS location. One sample was used for hormone analysis, while the other was used for parasite analysis. The rest of our faecal samples were collected on sampling day, which would be one day each week on which we didn’t do any group scans, but spent most of our day trying to collect samples. In the morning we would go to the forest a little earlier, to find the monkeys still in their sleeping trees, and attempt to collect urine by holding a sieve covered in a plastic bag at the end of a long pole. This proved very difficult, as the monkeys would often shy away from the device, but was occasionally successful.
The research I carried out in Germany was very similar to the work I had previously carried out in Madagascar, so I enjoyed refining my skills and experience in behavioural data collection, and learning about a species which was new to me. I had never studied such a large group of primates before, and I felt it was a great achievement to be able to identify so many individuals at a quick glance. It was a shame that I never got to do any parasite analysis, which had been the main draw of this study for me. We simply stored all of our samples for later analysis by the phD students, as the project was short staffed and we had to spend as much time as possible collecting behavioural data in the field.
Volunteering on the project was a great opportunity for me to do some filming, take lots of photographs, and to collect field recordings. I am now working on making a zine of some of my photographs, and putting together a short video of the footage I filmed. There were a lot of great sounds in the forest, many birds and interesting macaque sounds. I think the forest was underneath quite a busy flight path as I often heard aircraft noise, and this features in a lot of my recordings.