Monkey Fights and Explanations

Picture this: I am on the ground sitting cross-legged on a paved road. I have a stick in one hand and a small test tube of monkey poop in the other. In front of me are several male Capuchins who have just burst out of the forest and are screaming and baring their teeth while running at full speed in my direction. Cue *record scratch* Yep, that’s me, you’re probably wondering how I got here freeze frame.

It was our first full day with Admin and I was on the wake-up shift. Luckily, Admin stays close to the administration area of the park (hence their name), so I only had to leave at 5:30am to meet them just before the sun came up at 6. By sunrise, we were on the move toward La Casona, the famous monument here at the park. By 8am, Gill (the PhD student I am working with) and Susannah (one of the other field assistants) had joined me for the day.

As it was our first day with this group, our number one priority was to collect fecal samples from all the female monkeys. If you want to know more about why we do this, check out Gill’s website for a detailed description of her project. But for now, I’ll sum up our need simply as “hormone collection”.

The nice thing about hormone collection is that once we have collected one round of fecal samples from all the females within a group, we are done with collection until the next time we rejoin them 1-2 weeks later. The catch is that collection must be done before noon. By 9:30am on the day of my story, we had collected none.

Now you might be wondering, “how does one go about collecting a fecal sample?”. Glad you asked. The researcher must choose a particular monkey to follow around until it poops. Once you see your monkey poop, you must never ever ever take your eyes off said poop. You must watch said poop fall to the ground and stare at said spot on the ground as you walk toward said spot to collect said poop. Once you have located said poop, you take a nearby stick and use it to transfer said poop into a test tube. Once you have done this and written the proper identifying information on the test tube, your ordinary said poop has now become an “important fecal sample”. This “important fecal sample” must be immediately put on ice in your cooler (that the researcher carries around without complaint, despite its clunky, dumb, obnoxious, annoying… I mean, despite its added weight). Once your fecal sample is on ice, you start the process all over again. Sometimes, we have all our samples collected within an hour and it’s great, but again, on the day of my story, this was not one of those times.

Gill, Susannah, and myself had been following individual monkeys all morning with nothing to show for it. I was assigned to follow a monkey named Beauty (who, incidentally, is not very beautiful) and was reaching the 60 minute mark of staring at her unproductive monkey butt. Suddenly, after chasing her over impossible underbrush and a rocky hillside, she did a beautiful thing. Beauty jumped to a tree right next to the road, sat on a low hanging branch, and pooped right on the pavement. I didn’t even have to go hunting in the underbrush! I could sit comfortably on the road and collect it right there! Considering the most recent sample I collected was in the middle of an acacia ant nest, I fondly think back on how easy this collection scenario was. These are the things I think about now.

Elated that I finally had the first collection of the day, I sat cross-legged in the middle of the road to quickly collect the sample and put it on ice. As I am doing this, we hear the sound of a screaming monkey in the distance. Then another. And another. These are the sounds of what we call an IGE, aka, an “inter-group encounter”.

An inter-group encounter is when one social group of monkeys fights another social group for disputed resources. This usually happens in overlapping territorial areas over water, fruit trees, etc. On this day, the disputed territory was La Casona, and by the sounds coming from the forest, Admin wasn’t doing so great.

A few things happen when an IGE occurs. Most of the male monkeys stay and fight (although we have one badass female who usually participates) while the females and babies run the opposite way. This is rough because you, as the researcher, must run with the babies and females so as not to lose the group. As the monkeys started moving, Gill began shouting directions: “Susannah go with the females, I’ll record the data for the IGE, and Audrey just keep collecting that sample.” and they were off. So while all of this is occurring around me, I am still on the ground collecting poop.

Suddenly, the foliage in front of me is alive with movement and screaming monkeys. A few seconds later, the Admin alpha and the other males burst out of the forest and are running straight in my direction. We clearly lost, and they were retreating. I pulled my arms in as they rushed past me, two swerving and barely missing a collision with my exposed limbs. Following close behind was another habituated group called LV, and they were pissed. The LV males stopped mere feet in front of me, teeth baring and shrieking, while the Admin males sat behind me using my wide-eyed, cross-legged figure as a human shield. Talk about being caught between a monkey and a hard place (please, hold all applause and laughter until the end). I had to sit and wait out the fight before I could move, no need to accidently provoke an already provoked monkey by standing up too soon. Finally, LV retreated, and our males ran off into the woods behind me, leaving me once again alone in the middle of the road with Beauty’s poop. And that, my friends is the story of how I ended up in the middle of a monkey fight and lived to tell the tale.

Both Gill and Susannah agree that getting to witness an IGE right at their level never happens, and I had a very lucky, cool, and unique experience. Our habituated groups always get close to us, but I doubt I will ever experience the rush of fur grazing my arms from wild monkeys quite like that ever again. I’ve been asked if I was scared at all, but in the moment all I could think was damn I wish I had a good camera. Oh and in case you were still on the edge of your seat about this: I did end up successfully collecting that poop.


This is NOT one of the male monkeys who surrounded me during the above IGE. This is Malfoy, and he is the alpha male of Guanacaste group. This is the only good photo I have of a male monkey, and at least it shows the size of your average alpha. Plus look how artsy this is! He looks so old and wise. Oh yeah, this group has all HP names which is pretty cool.

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