Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Proof is in the Poop

When I was in the Second Grade, our teacher asked us to write down what we wanted to do when we grew up. I wrote (and I still have the paper to prove it) that someday I wanted to go to the jungle to study monkeys. More than thirty years later, there I was in the jungle last weekend helping two American researchers gather information on the endangered squirrel monkeys that frequent our property. Coincidence? I think not!

To be completely honest, the Jane Goodall experience I imagined as a child didn’t quite measure up to reality. For starters, the monkeys didn’t cooperate and pulled a complete no~show. The researchers were good~natured and understanding, but I felt like an embarrassed mother being stood up by her truant teenagers. Thankfully, on our search for the little rascals, we came across a fruiting tree where they had recently eaten. Under the tree, we found precisely what the researchers were looking for ~ Monkey Poop!

It turns out that the poop contains ethelial cells from the intestinal lining from which DNA can be extracted. With it, the researchers will be able to tell whether deforestation that occurred in Costa Rica in the 1930’s and 40’s led to increased inbreeding among squirrel monkeys. If such negative consequences of deforestation can be proven, the stronger the case against continued destruction of the squirrel monkey habitat. It may sound hard to believe that so much can be determined by a tiny stool sample, but I shit you not.

In the hours I spent with the researchers staring up at empty trees, I learned some interesting information about our fuzzy cousins. For example, how do you tell a female squirrel monkey from a male? The female is the one with long Elvis sideburns (naturally!). Of all primates, which one has the fastest metabolism for its body size? That would be our little friend the squirrel monkey, of course. With the holidays upon us, feel free to keep these gems up your sleeve to spice up any flagging cocktail conversation.

In all seriousness, Patrick and I feel pretty fortunate to have squirrel monkeys as visitors to our property and will continue to do whatever we can to ensure their continued survival. For myself, I feel fortunate to have been able to fulfill one of my life~long dreams. It just goes to show parents and teachers that even the most outlandish of their children’s aspirations should never be poo~pooed :)

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