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An Interview with Researcher Mary Dinsmore (by Laura Wells, intern)

28 August 2010

Saddle-back tamarin (Saguinus fuscicollis)

Laura Wells (Fauna Forever social media intern) interviewed Mary Dinsmore (from Omaha, Nebraska), a researcher stationed at the Los Amigos Biological Station (locally known as CICRA, which is owned and managed by the Amazon Conservation Association

Laura: Hi Mary!

Mary: Hi Laura!

Laura: We’d love to share a little info about you and your work on our Fauna Forever blog. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Mary: Sure! I attended the University of Portland, Oregon, where I attained two bachelors degrees – one in Environmental Science, and the other in Arts and Political Science. I graduated in 2009, after which I worked on a couple of animal behaviour projects. I’m really interested in species conservation, and so I did an internship at a zoo, where I worked on a project on the behaviour of elephants.

Laura: Madre de Dios is quite far from Oregon?

Mary: Yes, I wanted to gain field experience in the tropics, particularly with respect to primates, and found a position to be an assistant of Mini Watsa, who is currently doing research here for a PhD. I had travelled to Ecuador before and loved it, so I was really excited to come to Peru.

Laura: How long have you been at CICRA?

Mary: Two months now.

Laura: OK, and how long do you plan to stay?

Mary: Only a few days more unfortunately, I leave for the US on August 30th.

Laura: Could you tell us a little more about the objectives of the project you are assisting with?

Mary: Mini is looking at the relationship between genetic chimerism and alloparenting behaviour in Saddleback tamarins (Saguinus fuscicollis), with an emphasis on general population genetics and group structure of this species in the tropical forest around CICRA. Chimerism is a condition created by the horizontal transfer of genes from siblings to each other, resulting in the birth of twin offspring that are genetic mosaics or each other, and that share over 50% of their genes with each other. The effects of this condition on primate behaviour are as yet unstudied and hard to decipher. Therefore, we are focused on a specific aspect of their behaviour and look at the treatment of twins by their biological parents and the other adults in the group, and vice versa

Laura: Fascinating! Do you need to monitor the tamarins’ behaviour every day?

Mary: There are thirty individuals that have been tagged, within five groups – two of these are groups with twins. I go into the field with another person and a radio-tracker, which I use to find the monkeys that we have tagged. The radio-tracker beeps when we get close to one of the tagged monkeys – the beeps sound closer together as we get closer to the tamarins. Once we find the monkeys, we turn on a GPS and use it to track where they go. When we are following them, we focus largely on the twins; one of us records what the monkeys do using a technique called focal observation and the other writes. We are looking for certain things like food sharing between twins, mating, when the twins are rejected food, catching bugs or insects, as well as the food that they eat. Every 10 minutes, we do a scan and write down exactly what the twins are doing. We do this every day for anything between 4 and 10 hours per day. Also, we search for new tamarin groups using playbacks of long calls – if we find new groups we will observe them for about 2 hours to try to figure out the sexes of the individuals and the number of young. Finally, we tag trees that the monkeys eat from or sleep in, to try to figure out why the tree is important and what types of fruits and sap come from that tree. In total, we have tagged 900 trees so far.

Laura: That sounds like a busy schedule! What have you learnt so far?

Mary: We haven’t reached the stage where we can draw conclusions from our data yet, as Mini is in the process of analysing all the data that we have collected.

Laura: So, when will do you expect Mini’s project to be complete?

Mary: It will be at least another year, but maybe a year and a half, due to the sheer volume of data that is required.

Laura: It sounds like a mountain of data! Mini will be publishing all of it hopefully?

Mary: Yes, but Mini isn’t sure when that will be as it depends on how long the data analysis process takes.

Laura: We look forward to that! Where do you think we might find it once it’s published?

Mary: I’m not sure yet, but it’s coming from the University of Washington, Saint Louis.

Laura: Great, thank you Mary. One final important question; what do you consider to be the biggest threat to the rainforest?

Mary: The impacts of humans, specifically gold-mining, deforestation, and a lack of political decision-making.

Laura: And what actions do you think are required to solve the problem?

Mary: Education of local people and stricter government regulations, especially for activities such as gold-mining which is destroying so much forest.

Laura: Thanks for your time Mary. We look forward to seeing Mini and her hard-working team’s work published soon.

Mary: Thanks Laura!

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