Nestled between sugar cane and rice plantations lies the lovely Taboga Forest Reserve. With intermittent internet, amicable field assistants and a life seemingly disconnected from the drama of the outside world, I thought I found a place free of politics. I was mistaken. Though free from the petty politics of Homo sapiens, white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus capuchinus) have a telenovela-esque drama that could rival those seen on any broadcasting network.
(Queue the entrance of Mesas)
Mesas, one of our four habituated monkey groups in Taboga, has had a colorful background from the start. This group of 16 has been one of the hardest groups to habituate, taking nearly 2.5 years. This reluctance is perhaps due to people throwing rocks at the monkeys prior to the project’s start. Understandably so, this weariness is still ingrained and the group spends their time on Mountain Eskameka, or in the Valle de las Moras. Only when the farm workers leave and the sounds of the tractors and voices subside do they venture across the road or visit the mango tree near the houses.
Perhaps they were taking advantage of a quiet Sunday, when on November 10th, 2019, crossing the road via power lines, the dynamics of their group was thrust into turmoil. Maradona, the alpha of the group was electrocuted by a power line. The crew sprung into action! We called the electrical company to retrieve him, conducted morphometrics (If you are wondering how heavy an adult male capuchin is, it is 7 lbs), and necropsied him (thanks to the amazing vet, Dr. Marta Cordero from Las Pumas, a local rehabilitation and rescue center). Then we turned our efforts to behavior data.
And so began the drama of the male next in line to take the throne. We made it a priority for the next few weeks to follow the group, recording behavioral data and collecting fecal samples to analyze hormones. There were only two possible options as successors: Moises, the only remaining adult male and Mozote, a sub-adult male. Despite Moises’ seemingly pleasant and amicable demeanor he quickly seized power as the new alpha. Mozote was left to reside far outside the group. His lost calls were sometimes heard in the distance and some brazen members of the group responded. Business carried on, more or less as usual. The females tumultuously vied for the alpha female position. The juveniles gargled at Moises, a sign of submission. Though he led the group well, every day Moises looked more and more tired. He traveled primary on the ground and was usually in the back of the group. He seemed slow, stiff and weak, setting the stage for another overthrow of power. With every conflict with the neighboring groups we wondered if an outside male could contend. Weeks of Moises’ reign turned to months and we naively began to think the group would settle into normalcy again.
In February, after a week away from Mesas, the crew returned to find Moises nowhere in sight and Mozote in the middle of the group. He was groomed and gargled at, particularly by the three youngest of the group. And aside from a flap of his skin hanging over his eye, it seemed like he had finally found his place. After a few days of acute observation however, our suspicions started to grow that Mozote might not have complete sway in the group. Mozote would vocalize ‘Let’s Go’ calls repeatedly and no one would budge. It seemed Meza or Mulan, adult females, would lead the group at times and on occasion the lost calls of Moises were heard in the distance. Nearly a month later we still haven’t seen Moises, but perhaps he is living on the fringes of Mesas’ range. With the loyalties of the members of Mesas in question, I expect the next few months of observations to be equally enthralling. But until seen otherwise, the hierarchy of the group remains unstable, with Mozote precariously perched on top.
By Sophia Prisco