Primates Watching Primates

Primates Watching Primates

Sara Lucci, Anthropology, Ohio State University

I kind of stumbled into the Primate Behavior and Conservation class. Other summer plans weren’t working out, so with the encouragement of my professors, I applied to DANTA. About two months and twenty trips to REI later, I was on an airplane to San Jose, Costa Rica.


View of Volcan Poas crater

Each day started out early. If your stomach didn’t wake you up growling for breakfast, the howler monkeys echoing through the trees or the house wrens chirping from the rafters of the cabin would. We hiked the trails of Osa Conservation’s Piro Biological Research Station three times a day, gathering data. And we would return, sometimes successful, sometimes not, but always ready to fall asleep by 9:30 pm.

Piro is basically a tiny island in the middle of the forest, connected to a small town about two hours away by a gravel road. The forest is with you all the time, sometimes not in the most pleasant ways. I walked into spider webs, there was a toad in our bathroom, and I could hike for hours without seeing a single monkey. But then, one day, I watched two spider monkey infants hanging by their tails in a tree and playing while their mothers ate. One day capuchins came to camp and sat in an inga tree just a few feet above me. And one magical night, we watched in awe as a mother turtle laid her eggs in the sand before returning to the churning, gray and black ocean. In the moments I could sit and watch squirrel monkeys crashing through the trees or the waves crashing against the beach, any fear and irritation blew away with the rain clouds.

It was by no means a vacation. We were out every day, learning to collect information on the environment, the primates, and their behaviors. We had to research primate literature to understand the knowns and unknowns of our subjects so we could develop our own projects. Our instructor, Kim, pushed us through those hot and draining days, but she encouraged us to follow our interests and helped whenever I hit a snag in my research.

I think the trip challenged everyone, in some way, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Kim understood that for most of us, this kind of trip was completely new territory, and she reassured me whenever I doubted my abilities. And I never felt more engaged in research as when I first spotted a troop of spider monkeys on my own as they chattered in the trees.


The eight students all lived together in a cabin during our stay at Piro. It was strange, at first, being in such a small group. I’ve had college classes that topped 350 students crammed into one lecture hall. But living with people that share my interests brought me closer to a group in three weeks than I could have imagined. Where else could I sit and eat dinner with people making primate vocalizations at each other?

It was a tough three weeks. But I came out of it stronger, with a better understanding of field research and the confidence to pursue it. And in the end I’ve realized that this field course was one of the most valuable academic experiences I’ve ever had.

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