Child Care

Warning: Graphic Cuteness ahead. Side effects may include babytalk or outright incoherence. Prolonged exposure may trigger reminders of Biological Clock. Fertile couples are advised against viewing. Continue at your own discretion.

Monkeys are ugly. It’s a fact. They are simply aesthetically unappealing. It’s empirical. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or clearly never seen a monkey up close.

White-faced capuchins are, anyway. There are things like tamarins and marmosets that look like little gnomes, but capuchins and most Cebids fall into an uncanny valley of anthropomorphic characteristics. They have humanlike features, but animal proportions–their faces protrude, their eyes are sunken and beady. Their lips stretch and their teeth are gapped and pointed. Their hands look like ours from a distance, but up close the fingers are too long and clawed.

It doesn’t help that they often maul each other into wretchedness, either.

But the babies, however, are just too damn stinkin’ cute. They check all the boxes for triggering the protecting instinct in humans: the large eyes, bulging forehead, and massive sideways ears that combine to tell us that the animal in question is adorable. That it is immature, helpless, curious, vulnerable, and needs our attention. The aesthetic is selected for and programmed into us, so strongly that it can cross species boundaries. You look at this thing, and your primitive mind tells you, “Aww!”

Don’t tell me it doesn’t.

But it’s also their mannerisms. Baby monkeys act very much like, well, baby humans. The growth and development might be a little sped up, but monkeys pass through the same stages of infant, baby, toddler, child, and adolescent that we do, and tend to behave the same along the way.

For the first day or so of their lives, monkeys do little more than cling to their mother and try to sleep off the first impressions of the world they’ve just been put into. But once they start to open their eyes and move around, they are like rugrats. They clamber over anything and anyone with clumsy gait but strong grip. The world is their jungle gym, whether it be over branches, rocks, or their own relatives. Other monkeys, trying to sleep or eat, may attempt to discourage them with a light slap or reel them in by the tail, but there is no truly stopping a baby monkey for long. The energy is inexhaustible. Even when they’re sitting still, they’re often pulling their own tail or counting their own toes. I watched one play with a blade of grass, bopping it back and forth while its exhausted mother took a much-appreciated nap.

New parents–you feeling me?

And then there’s the mouth stuff. Monkey babies, like human babies, will put their mouth on anything that they can’t fit into their mouth with their own hands. They try to explore their world by taste and texture, ignorant of health and hygiene. When they’re not nursing, they’re eating. When they’re not eating, they’re licking. When they’ve found nothing to imbibe, they’re just sticking their tongue out as if daring the universe to put something in their open mouth.


But the most human thing I’ve seen them do is the staring. Monkeys, like most animals, avoid direct eye contact for long. It’s considered provocative by most social animal standards, something only done among close relatives and allies. But babies stare. Like, deep into your soul stare. A constant, steady, wide-eyed, whites-showing gaze that suggests they are committing every detail of you to memory. It combines curiosity, surprise, and suspicion into one piercing package.

“You lookin’ at me?”

This makes sense. Monkeys live complex lives, and rely on many inputs to survive day to day. They eat a wide variety of foods which must be studied and analyzed for ripeness or edibility. They move about in a chaotic and vertical environment where slipping would mean falling to your death. They rely on complicated social structure based on hierarchy and cues. All this means that they must adapt quickly to many factors and sensations, all stored in a relatively large brain. Much like humans do.

Babies–humans and monkeys alike, have to deathstare and stick things in their mouths. It’s the best way to find out what things are and what’s safe to eat. They have to clamber over objects and relatives–they have to learn how to move and explore. And also test the limits of patience of the adults in their lives.

So it’s no surprise that we pick up on many similarities during development. And sometimes some wires get crossed and we pick up on their developmental cues. Especially when those babies are being just so dang wompin’ cute. I mean, come on!

Oh my god.

A Wee Little Tap on the Head

(Update: I’m fine, no concussion, just a skin-deep head wound and a bitch of a headache.)

Yesterday, a coworker and I were trying to keep up with a certain monkey who realized she’d left her baby behind several trees ago. She bolted through the canopy, and we struggled to follow. As I tried to force my way through a tenacious tangle of vines, they stretched and then snapped, sending me hurtling forward in a headfirst sprawl. I tucked and braced for impact, but there was a rock.

It was small, maybe roughly American-football sized and similarly shaped. Something dark and volcanic, its surface rough and jagged. It sat alone, about half-embedded in the ground, about two and a half meters from where I began my fall. I know this because if it had been any closer it would have gone into my head. As it happened, it only sort of glanced, scoring my scalp. But I still hit it pretty hard.

The first thing I did was to roll over and not try to stand up. I was already dizzy, and knew that if I tried to rise too fast I would only fall over again. I shouted something to my partner along the lines of “stay with the monkey” while a second coworker caught up to me. I told her I felt fine, was perfectly lucid, and that I didn’t even think there was any blood. She took one look at me, pulled out some gauze, pressed it to my head, and showed me the result: it was red. Very red.

We quickly reconvened and did a sitrep. We were near the top of a nasty cliff in a section of forest infamously known as the Anus. It’s a small valley filled with a messy tangle of thick brush, old landslides, and fallen trees. The only trails are poorly maintained, even for our standards. The nearest decent road was about 300 meters away in a straight line, which I knew from experience could take an hour or more to crash through. There were only three of us, and we were about to lose this group of monkeys which were particularly hard to find.

The way I saw it, I had several options. I could sit until the worst of the dizziness went away, then try to walk to where we’d parked that morning and wait there while my coworkers stayed with the monkeys. That way, I’d have the option of an early extraction, but we’d keep the monkeys. I could leave with one person to monitor my condition, but this would leave one person alone in the field. Seemed risky. We could also all leave, immediately. This was the most sound, but we were sure to lose the monkeys. Alternatively, I could swaddle my head in bandages and tough it out. This didn’t sound promising. I could also be left alone while the other two kept the monkeys, until my condition improved or I was finished off by wild animals. This didn’t sound promising either.

Behold: my evac route.

So there I was. Bleeding and reeling. The monkeys were rapidly moving on. I was isolated by some of the nastiest terrain this reserve can offer, above a cliff overlooking a valley of vines and thorns. At some point, there would be a river to cross. And possibly wasp nests. Most definitely ants. So, the question is: what did I do?

Trick question! The correct answer is: it doesn’t matter! Since I had a potential concussion, all my rational judgement may have been compromised. What I decided to do didn’t amount to shit. My coworkers would’ve just ignored it. In the end, saner minds prevailed. We called our boss, who strongly suggested that they get my punch-drunk ass home, stat, where I could then get proper medical attention. They did.

And that, folks, is the story of how I hurt my head while chasing a monkey deep, deep into the Anus.

Ah thank you.

It Makes You Think

On our last field day, the monkeys started alarming and I followed them to a patch of Bromelia pinguin–a large, cactus-like ground-dwelling bromeliad that usually makes our life hell. The plant grows in a whorl of sawblades tipped with hooked spines. They usually grow too close together to pass through, and have a habit of reaching out their long serrated fronds over our paths. They grow to about waist-height, perfect for a little DIY appendectomy should you trip and fall into one.

However, the monkeys were reserving their outrage for what was in the bromeliads: a young boa constrictor, all laid out and resting along a leaf, snug between spines. The monkeys threatened at it for a while, dropped things, tried to impress each other with their courage, shrieked in fear, formed coalitions against the snake, threatened some more, competed for better positions to assert their courage against the snake, made sure the alpha was watching them, tried to manipulate the situation to better their social standing, threatened some more, threatened us for good measure, then got bored and wandered off to eat and fuck each other as they typically do.

Short tempers, even shorter attention span.

But I, naturally, stayed with the snake. I was impressed it was able to find a comfortable spot without being impaled. I guess a limbless, scaled body was a great advantage to maneuver into a spot where it could avoid predators (birds, cats) and ambush prey trying to do the same.

Whenever I get this close to BP, I end up looking like a Clive Barker extra.

For an animal, the agency to choose a location for ambush or shelter is strongly selected for. It’s quite simple: animals that choose better spots will eat more and get eaten less. Classic positive reinforcement, as long as those choices are genetically influenced. That’s just basic evolution. But is all of their behavior is simple reinforced patterns? Is there any cognition involved?

Imagine if you were to pick a hiding spot. You would have to take into account your needs, but also try to think as your predator or prey. You’d have to project. You’d have to empathize. You would have to imagine yourself in the mind of another creature, and take into account a whole new suite of needs and capabilities.

Nearby that snake was a river, where we often see iguanas resting on overhanging tree limbs. When they hear us approach, they dive into the water with a terrific crash. Do they know predators aren’t likely to swim after them? Are they choosing specifically to sleep above water? Or have all the iguanas that rested over land simply been eaten already?

Maybe they like the expression we make when a giant lizard lands with a splash a few meters away. That, too, is positive reinforcement.

Perhaps a greater question is more self-reflective: if we speculate that animals have advanced cognition rather than selected behavior, what then is the difference? Are we demonstrating anything more than seleceted behavior? Is our intelligence really more than a–albeit, vastly complex–pattern of behavior?

This is all getting way more philosophical and speculative than I normally prefer. Really, this whole thing came to me in the heat of a long day, near the end of a long month, while I was more than a little dehydrated. Shoot, it was probably just an excuse to stick around and take more pictures of a large snake. Anything to liven up the day.

It’s been a slow month.

Why I’m Not a Cat Person

Yesterday started off slow. We found the monkeys fairly early in the day, and they led us at a surprisingly easy pace along a river, where we were able to follow them from a trail on the other bank. The trail itself was well-groomed–an old service road with only a collapsing barbed wire fence between us and the monkeys. It was almost pleasant.

But this story involves monkeys. You know it’s not going to end well.

Then they all freaked out. The entire group started barking the alarm they use for terrestrial threats, including snakes and caimans. But I had never heard it done with such excitement–not even when we found that boa a few months ago. This time the entire group leaped for the trees and started screaming in fear and aggression. This wasn’t just a danger–it was a threat. But what was most unusual was that by following their gaze, I could see that whatever they were alarming at was moving, and moving fast. And when it passed by a gap in the bushes I understood why–it was an ocelot.

Kitty cat! My groggy mind jumped forward several gears. I had never actually seen an ocelot before. Margay, puma, jaguarundi, sure–but this was a first. And it disappeared back into the bushes before I could get a picture. With the monkeys still shitting themselves in terror, I knew it was still close but would vanish soon.

The river was wide but shallow, and my only barrier between me and cat pics was the old barbed wire fence. The posts were too rotten to support any weight, and the wires were too close together to slip through. However, I noticed a nearby rock that I could use as a step to vault over in a single motion, a technique I’d done before. It would be no problem. I was in a hurry.

Cue hubris.

The rock shifted as soon as I pushed off, when I already had one leg over the fence. My other one didn’t clear. I went down, with no momentum, and no leverage, crotch-first onto rusty barbed wire, with both feet dangling inches above the ground.

I won’t bother describing the pain. Or the thought in the back of my head of what tetanus would do to one’s nether regions. I simply fumbled for a way off my self-induced humiliation. My partner came to my aid. I told him to, “take my hand and pull really hard on the count of three,” whereupon I kicked out and managed to reverse the maneuver that had put me there.

By then, the ocelot had gone. But the monkeys remained in the trees for a while, barking alarms in different directions. They, too, had lost sight of the cat. But my concerns were elsewhere. Upon careful inspection, I was able to determine that the barbs had not broken the skin, or even torn my pants, and that at worst I was being let off with a few microbruises to my groin and ego. Oh, and the skepticism of my friends, since I was never able to get any ocelot photos. But once I described my injury, most of them decided that the story made sense. The chance of a rare cat photo is clearly worth risking genital impalement.

Don’t give me that look.


You Take It When You Can

Yesterday, I was sitting the in the forest. The morning had been spent chasing monkeys up and down several cliffs until they ran off. It was a hot day, and I was greasy from all the  sweat soaked into my field clothes. I had ants in my boots, mosquitoes hovering by my ear, and chiggers in my navel. There were fresh puma tracks nearby. And I nearly fell asleep.

Why? Because I was tired. Because it had been a long day. We had lost the monkeys and were staking out a site we were pretty sure they would return to. Because my back hurt from carrying my pack. Because I hadn’t gotten much sleep recently and dammit, the sandy ground was kind of comfy.

That lack of sleep may have something to do with all the ant, mosquito, and chigger bites.

But my point is, I almost fell asleep in an area surrounded by things that would keep most people up all night. Hell, a few years ago I would have thought anyone was out of their mind if they had even a momentary lapse in awareness in the jungle. Biting insects and large predators? You can’t even risk daydreaming. Naptime? Forget about it!

Mostly, it comes down to comfort and perspective. After so many years in fieldwork, and so many hours physically in the field, the forest is just another place. I’ve mentioned before about how it’s all relative–every location and environment has its own risks, perceived or otherwise. I’ve simply gotten used to this one. It’s not that I don’t notice the bugs anymore (especially ants, don’t think that I don’t), it’s just that I consider them differently when prioritizing things like efficiency and comfort.

Mostly sleep. I cannot emphasize enough how big a factor sleep deprivation is. I thought this mushroom was a turtle.


As for the predators, they simply aren’t that big an issue. Not during the day, at least, and not for a fullgrown, healthy human. I’m willing to share my space with large cats with the understanding that they’re more wary of me than I am of them. For the most part, they have no reason to disturb me while I rest. The ones around here don’t consider humans food. And I after a few hours of hiking, I smell far from edible.

I’ve reached the point where I can find a few minutes of sleep just about anywhere. Not that I can maintain it uninterrupted, though. The flip side of all this field time is a whole other issue–I will bolt awake in a near panic at the slightest disturbance, going from coma-like torpor to wide awake, machete-waving fight-or-flight at the drop of a hat. Or the snap of a twig. This means I can cue in to approaching monkeys even while nodding off, but also means that I sometimes scare the piss out of coworkers and roommates.

My suggestions: stay out of arms’ reach. Doubt me at your peril.

It’s a skill that comes with a tight balance. While I doubt anyone can literally sleep with one eye open, I can generally sleep with both ears perked. Even in the forest. Certainly when I need it. Just be careful if you have to wake me up.

Nasal Sensitivity

Capuchin monkeys tend to spend a lot of time in the canopy, high up where the fruit and bugs are. In the wet season, when most of the trees are in full leaf, this makes them awfully hard to spot or watch. It’s even harder in heavy rain, when looking straight up gives you an eyeful of drops. You can try to keep track of them by sound, following the characteristic “swish-crash” they make as they jump between branches, or the frequent screams and calls they make to each other. But again, this is difficult in heavy rain, when it’s hard to hear your own coworkers yelling in you ear about how someone’s stuck in quicksand or drowning in a flood or whatever.

All of this means that I usually rely on another sense to follow monkeys, the tracker’s secret weapon: scent. Many’s the time I’ve stood perfectly still and silent, deeply inhaling through my nose in an effort to locate our targets. Or I’ve stooped low to the ground and  run my face inches over crushed stems and turned-up earth, trying to pick up traces.

Just as often, however, I’ve been informed that this is not normal human behavior. It’s confusing or even worrying to a tour group or intern to see their guide or mentor suddenly stop moving and starting sniffing the air like an animal. Some point this out to me. Some just stare, or trade looks with each other.

Part of this is because–in our culture–scent as a characteristic is practically ignored. It’s almost taboo. Scent is either purely negative (body odor, sweat, animal dander) or else provocative (perfume, cologne, food). It’s natural and repugnant or artificial and overpowering. Suppressive. Extreme. There is no nuance, and little information. Thus, our sense of smell is never exercised. As a species, we’ve selected against the ability to consciously pick up and identify specific smells. And there aren’t nearly enough words in English–or any other written language as far as I know–to describe the various odors out there.

Imagine what you smell like to them.

I may have a naturally overdeveloped sense of smell. Maybe it’s genetic. But maybe it’s just more practiced. I’m more with the latter. But either way, I’ve trained my nose to be able to pick out and key into smells that most people can’t or don’t. Especially when it comes to animals.

Large mammals, especially hoofed herbivores, have a musky odor. It lingers for several days, especially on tree trunks where they scratch themselves. Pigs, like the peccaries here, have that smell turned up to 11. It’s almost sulfurous.

Snakes have a strong musk as well, but it’s more bitter and doesn’t last as long. They usually release it when they’re alarmed, but I also pick up traces around where they shed skin. Other reptiles have less smell in general, except for turtles. They smell like algae and mildew, but with a slight sweetness as well.

None of this is meant to be flattering, by the way.

Cats–as many pet owners will agree–have a sharp, noxious scent that they leave in carefully chosen places to mark territory. It’s usually accompanied by scratches in the ground or on trees, as I’ve mentioned before.

The list goes on, and just as long are the number of smells that I can’t describe with words. I’m stuck with comparisons. Butterflies smell like dust. Most birds smell like moldy bread. Weasels and kin smell like ammonia, molasses, and spoiled meat, so strong it’s like being punched in the nose. Termites smell like menthol and turpentine, and anyone who smells like that has clearly just brushed up against a nest.

Whereupon they will immediately receive a good scrubbing to remove the offending insects. Strangely, I’m rarely thanked for this favor.

As for monkeys, white-faced capuchins leave behind a telltale trail of wet black turds that reek like a compost pit emptied into an overchlorinated swimming pool. That’s the best I can describe it. It can vary depending on what they’ve been eating, but is usually overpowering when freshly dropped and tenacious when dropped onto clothing.

Howler monkey poop is more fruity and not nearly so bad, but it’s usually deposited directly on your head. Intentionally.

As I said, all of this is hard to explain, and doesn’t exactly make for polite conversation. Except among biologists. As far as culture and scents go, we’re a lost cause.


Morale Compass Declination: An Over-Extended Metaphor

I was twenty when I first learned about Magnetic Declination–the fact that Magnetic North can vary significantly from place to place depending on local magnetic forces in the Earth’s mantle. It surprised me that I had gone so long and had so much compass use without learning something so important. Moreover, it struck me that something I had assumed to be precise and empirical was, in fact, subjective.

To me, a compass was absolute. Hard science. Quantitative and unbiased. How was I supposed to deal with the knowledge that its directions were subject to the whims of local geography? To little swirls and eddies in the liquid ruminations deep below, all mixing and layering and simmering for some time?

Have I mentioned that I am not a geologist?

I’ve come to realize that so much of science is based off data that is–(yes, I’m using “data” as a collective singular word, deal with it)–is not as absolute and empirical than everyone would believe. Just like a compass, it is affected by “local geography,” so to speak, or to put it in other words: “deep ruminations, simmering for some time.”

You get it? It’s our minds. The psychology of the researchers collecting the data.

“I think they get it.”

Morale. The project-killer. The devil in the footnotes. The qualitative bull in a quantitative china shop. The curse of bias. The Heisenburg Unhappily Principle. During stressful periods, I worry that data is tainted by biases of the mental/emotional states of myself and my fellow researchers.

Examples: One day earlier this week was perfect. Good weather–overcast but no rain. We found the monkeys by miracle and stayed with them all day. The took us through a good area, nice and open with few thorns or ants. Crisis struck: my friend stepped into a sandy gully and sunk up to her thigh. Quicksand! I helped haul her out, and we laughed it off despite the fact that she was now soaked in what looked like concrete from the knees down. The monkeys let us catch up and we collected a record amount of data.

Few days later: Pouring rain. Miserable. Personal trouble at home had put everyone on edge. We followed monkeys through soggy brush and rough terrain, griping all the while. Summoned the energy to do a few observations while sinking in mud. I had ants crawl up my pants and grumbled about the stings all day. Observations were incomplete owing to visibility. We followed protocol, but ended up with little to show for that day.

Nothing except several bites in places I’m not going to show. Here’s a picture of a caiman we saw instead.


Morale might be the greatest, most significant factor that never appears in any scientific publication. When’s the last time you read a paper that gave a margin of error in its results, but then said something like, “also, these reports were entered after a long week of rain.” Or, “two of the three individuals conducting this study had just suffered a difficult breakup.” Or, “the following protocol was sound, but for several days the PI had gone a long time without a smoke break.”

I try to keep things together as best I can. This doesn’t mean I put on puppet shows or tell Dad jokes to elicit laughs from my coworkers, but minor things like checking up on everyone without being too nosy. Or keeping our workplace relatively clean of cockroaches and mold. Or cooking big satisfying dinners and the occasional warm baked good. I don’t do this because I’m a social butterfly or natural entertainer. Nor am I anyone’s maid or personal chef. But group morale has an actual, significant effect on data, and I know it’s the little things–little shifts in local geography–that can get that compass needle to point back to True North.

For me personally, the best method is small doses of giant reptile, administered regularly. This doesn’t have the same effect on everyone.

The Monkey Gazes Back

It’s coming up on the end of my third month here in the Monkeyverse. After all this time, all those long, grueling hours in the field, I can now add monkeys to the list of animals that I am intimately familiar with. I know their general life cycle, natural history, behavior, and can read body language. I can often tell individuals apart. I can track their movements and predict their actions with some confidence. Other animals on that list include dogs, cats, ravens, coyotes, octopus, wild pigs, moray eels, snakes, damselflies, sheep, horses, bees, and army ants. It’s been a…colorful career.

You’ll notice I did not include humans in that list.

But back to monkeys. In these past few months, I have seen more of the little tree-climbing, branch-dropping creeps than I had ever wanted. I have been witness to more bizarre and horrible actions than I had ever thought possible. I expected to learn a lot from this job, but not like this. My perceptions of monkeys has not been altered so much as reinforced.

I’ve said it before: monkeys combine the worst qualities of humans with the worst qualities of animals. Like us, they are greedy, selfish, irritable, cruel, and manipulative. They are also aggressive, dirty, clumsy, impatient, and ignorant. They show the predictive capability to plan out acts of mayhem for no apparent reason (ie, dropping a branch on an unsuspecting human or horse), but also the unawareness to foresee the consequences of their actions (ie, that standing on that same branch would cause them to fall as well). They show the logistic processes to acquire resources (using a shield to protect from wasps to raid a nest), but absolutely no empathy (using their own baby as the shield). They also seem completely ignorant of the concepts of life and death.

Schadenfreude meets stupidity.

The other day, I watched an alpha male raid a woodrat nest. Or maybe they were possums. Either way, he reached into a large bunch of dead leaves and pulled out a squirming, mewling pink baby. First he bit off the face. Not the head–the face. I know this because it continued to move and breathe while he skinned it and ate the rest from the stomach outward. The baby kept squirming but was unable to make any noise. The alpha took his time. It was a long couple of minutes.

Most predators will be sure to kill their prey before eating to ensure it does not escape. It’s not out of mercy–it’s simply easier that way. They understand that when food stops moving, it’s time to eat. But monkeys–with all their cognition and mental functions–can’t seem to tell when something is dead or not. I mentioned before how a few were confounded by a dead snake, still wary even though it was headless and covered in ants. But from what I hear, they generally keep food alive while they’re eating, especially when eating other mammals which they eat soft-parts first. Maybe they prefer food that’s still moving.

You can only watch something eat so many wriggling cockroaches before starting to believe this.

My point is, we’re witness to some pretty horrific acts on a regular basis. Even for the animal kingdom. Even for the jungle. Forget red in tooth and claw–this is red all over. Red on the face. Red in the hands. Red in our traumatized minds as we go home after watching a family of squirrels get eviscerated, screaming all the while. I can usually distance myself from the animals I study, generate a kind of cognitive dissonance, but this is hard to do when the purpose of your study is literally Anthropology.

Here, we’re not supposed to distance ourselves completely from the animals. We’re supposed to make connections. We’re supposed to project, even to anthropomorphize. It’s tricky, it’s chilling, and it’s dangerous. The monkeys are too human. I feel like I’m having some kind of Heart of Darkness-ish epiphany all over again, staring at these little bastards all day long.

I think I need a vacation.



With a Little Help From My Enemies

Every now and then, one monkey will utter a short, sharp, barking cough, usually from a perch while staring down at the ground. When it does so, the rest of the group immediately leaps for higher branches and some join in on the call. It’s a classic example of group cooperation–the sound is a snake alarm.

Monkeys, much like humans, recognize that some species of snakes are dangerous. It is a positively selected trait to point out the potential threat to fellow monkeys, and sure enough most members of the group will take turns staring down the snake as if noting the location. Sometimes they add their own alarms or throw things. The snakes usually just curl up and wait for the monkeys to leave.

I don’t blame them in the slightest.

However, yesterday an alarm call went out that sent the group into a frenzy. The monkeys didn’t just climb higher–they bolted. The alarms took on a deeper, louder tone. Juveniles took turns joining older males in open threat displays as they bared their teeth and broke branches onto a space between two large rocks. By following their gaze, I found what they were looking at–it was a boa.

This—well, partially. Better photos below.

Boas, unlike rattlesnakes and other vipers, aren’t just potential threats. They are potential predators. Large ones are known to prey on monkeys, although this is rare. The monkeys must have recognized this particular species, even though it was hidden in fallen leaves up to its nose. How they spotted it, I have no idea. All I know is that their concern may have had some merit. When the group moved on, I took a stick and jostled the leaves. Then I watched as the largest boa I have ever seen emerged into the sunlight.

Big, reptile, eats monkeys–what’s not to love?

Based on the size of the hiding spot, I guessed the snake would be about three, maybe three-and-a-half feet. This one was closer to six. Female, freshly molted, glistening in the sun. I gave her tail a little tug and she obliged by exposing her full length before disappearing into a new cave between rocks, her head still exposed as if daring me to try that again.

“Make my day.”

I hear that boas around here can get over ten feet long. I’ll have to keep my eyes out, and ears open for more snake alarms. Never thought I’d appreciate monkeys for being loud and irritable.

Shockingly Familiar

After putting the monkeys to bed one evening, I was walking back through an open pasture in the dark when up ahead I caught some eyeshine. It was bright yellow-orange, low to the ground, and perfectly still. It had been a slow week, and I was practically salivating at the thought of some big juicy exotic megafauna, so I crept closer, flashlight in front and camera at the ready.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a rabbit. Specifically, an Eastern Cottontail, the exact same species I used to chase out of vegetable gardens back in the Eastern US. Practically identical to the Desert Cottontails I used to see all the time in California.

Another time this happened and it turned out to be an opossum, an animal so ugly that its defense mechanism is pity.

Something similar happened again when we were staking out monkeys near some ripe fruit trees. I heard a crash and looked up just in time to see a White-Tailed Deer trot into the brush. I stared for a minute, unable to process that I had just seen. After all, this is Costa Rica, home of wild jungle animals, and I had just seen a perfectly normal deer.

Which is, of course, utter bullshit. Wilderness familiarity creates a kind of bias in our minds. I’ve mentioned before how most Ticos treat monkeys as–at best–distractions, or–at worst–pests–to the disbelief of tourists. The opposite is also true. To me, harkening from North America, I think of deer as rats with antlers. Where I’m from, they’re more of a traffic hazard than an actual animal. Rabbits are little better.

I have no such prejudice for snakes, though, even the familiar ones. Go figure.

But to see familiar species here is almost surreal, especially in combination with characteristically tropical flora and fauna. The same applies to plants. Several days now, I’ve followed monkeys to large, knobby trees with brittle, serrate leaves. The first time, I squinted to identify the fruits they were eating, until I looked down at the familiar crunching sound beneath my feet. Acorns! The trees were oaks.


How dare you. Drop those acorns right this minute and go eat some mangoes.

Oak trees? In the tropics? Covered in monkeys? My brain couldn’t parse that. To me, an oak is something you find in a temperate grassland, surrounded by sage scrub and willows. It’s not supposed to be draped in epiphytes and parrots.

It’s important to keep in mind that terms like “tropical” and “temperate” don’t define specific boundaries. All ecozones are gradients, and species can have any sort of distribution. Nothing says that they have to stay in their designated culturally-biased region, according to perceptions of confused naturalists. And the local abundance can vary. Deer may be car-stopping antlered vermin back home, but here they’re the second-largest land animal, hunted to near extinction. Rabbits are still rabbits, though.

This still looks wrong to me, somehow.