On Becoming a Field Primatologist- Grace Showalter

I have been living and breathing on this earth for 21 years; some days this feels like an eternity, others it feels like a fleeting moment.  However, when I look back at these 21 years, there are certain experiences that set themselves apart.  My experiences at Piro Biological Station, Osa Conservation, fall into this category.

The wonderful Osa Conservation has welcomed me twice in the last year.  My first visit was in the summer of 2015, for the Primate Behavior and Conservation field course offered by DANTA: Association for Conservation of the Tropics.  This course gave me my first taste of working in the field. I then returned to Piro during winter break (December 2015 – January 2016) to conduct independent research for an Honors Thesis in Anthropology.  These experiences in the field have taught me more about life and about myself than anything else.  Moreover, of course, I learned a little bit about what working in the field actually entails.

A typical day in the field begins with sunrise and ends with sundown.  Each time I have gone to Piro Biological Station, I have been greeted by early mornings.  Thankfully, the Mantled howler monkeys consistently howl around 4:00 AM, just in time.  Between the howler monkeys and the incessant beeping of my watch alarm, I never had troubles getting up!  The goal is to be in the forest by 5:00 AM, first light.  I would never leave the house without my backpack, which would contain bug spray, my water bottle, my means of data collection, binoculars, and a handkerchief.  My first burst of activity was, on average, around four hours.  Around 9:00 AM, I would return to the house for breakfast and a small break.  This isn’t a necessary step and in fact quite a luxury.  After breakfast, I would return to the field, where I would stay as long as possible.  On a typical day, I would head back to the station around 3:00 PM.  On the Osa Peninsula, the sun sets around 5:00 PM.  However, it begins to get dark in the forest around 4:30 PM.  These hours of dim lighting were always my worst enemy.  I have seen a Fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper, a venomous pit viper) near the site before, so I try to be very alert when walking around in times of low light.


Black-handed spider monkey, Ateles geoffroyi

Once back from working in the field, I would do at least an hour of data analysis.  As you can see, fieldwork is not an endeavor that should be taken lightly.  However, if you can commit to it and work the long days, it is unspeakably rewarding.

There are a few over-arching themes concerning the topic of fieldwork: dedication, perseverance, and patience.  Primarily, the dedication required for fieldwork is like that of nothing else.  While working in the field, it is natural, even unavoidable, to become tired and hot and sweaty.  There will be moments when all you want is to take a cold shower and have a nap.  Nevertheless, monkeys are rarely sitting still, doing nothing.  If you aren’t in the field taking notes or collecting data, you’re most likely missing valuable information.  For my independent work, my advisor expected me to work 12-hour days.  Therefore, one must be extremely dedicated to the project she is working on, to motivate herself to get out there, to walk that trail, and to study continually.  One must persevere, through the blisters and the heat rash and the continuous rice and beans.  (Let’s be honest, the rice and beans are delicious.)  However, if any future primatologists are reading this, don’t let the prospect of hard work scare you away.  If you can hone your perseverance, your dedication, you will see some of the most beautiful and powerful things you could ever hope to witness.  I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world, as they have led to some of the best moments of my life.

During my time at the field station alone, when I was conducting independent research, I absolutely learned the value of patience.  My first day was phenomenal; I collected so much data that morning that I had hoped I would be able to work only mornings in the field.  That hope didn’t last long.  By the second day, the monkeys were playing hide and seek.  The prognosis for my fieldwork was steadily turning toward the negative.  I needed to find both Howler and Spider Monkeys, both of which seem to be avoiding me.  Naturally, as this trend continued, I only became more frustrated.  I returned to the home of Miguel Sanchez, who graciously allowed me to stay with him and his family throughout my work.  I, in my best Spanish, told Miguel about my difficulties with the monkeys.  He replied, “Paciencia”.  Patience. .

If I learned anything, it would be that fieldwork is best operated without any expectations.  Treat every day as if it is your last day of data collection.  Nevertheless, don’t get frustrated if things aren’t going as you would hope or would “expect”.  Know that there is always a solution to any problem that may crop up, and that the best scientists in the world are flexible.  Work as hard as you can for as long as you can, and everything will turn out beautifully.


White-faced capuchin monkey, Cebus capucinus

The other major issue I have faced during my time away has been homesickness.  I would be lying if I said I never thought of home when I was in the field.  It seems crazy.  How in the world could I want to be anywhere else when I’m in gorgeous Costa Rica?  Don’t be afraid to let yourself miss the people that you love, but also know that you are in the field for a reason.  If you can bring yourself to be consumed by what it is you are researching, the days will go more quickly.  I suppose homesickness could be lumped under dedication as well.  The people who love you will be extremely proud of everything you accomplish, and will be so glad to see you when you come home!


So, for those asking themselves if they want to work in the field: try it.  The only way you will be able to know if fieldwork is for you is if you put yourself out there and experience it.  The hard work gives rise to beautiful experiences, such as seeing a Spider monkey mother make a bridge for her offspring to travel from tree to tree.  Though you will be tired and sweaty, you will also be proud of yourself and the work you have completed.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.  Always take two notebooks, several waterproof pens, and a good book to read in your down time.  Experience the area in which you are staying; if you are staying with a family, talk to them.

If I can survive and flourish in the field, so can you.

Grace Showalter, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington

One comment

  • Wow. Great job, Hannah. As a friend of your Aunt Ellen’s, we’re as proud of your accomplishments as she is. Thank you for doing this important work!

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