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After the hurricanes

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By Sarah Hewitt
Originally published in Umagazine

Through a smoky haze, the sun shines on a scene that’s more wasteland than jungle. Researchers scramble over trunks of smoldering trees and each step kicks up clouds of ash.

In October 2010, Hurricane Richard ravaged Belize’s Runaway Creek Nature Reserve. By May, fires raged across the parched savannah and swept into the hills, consuming hurricane-felled trees. “The risk of forest fires is very high in the dry season following a hurricane,” explains primatologist Mary Pavelka, head of the University of Calgary’s Department of Anthropology.

The karst limestone hills within the reserve’s 6,000 hectares house jaguars, tapirs, wild pigs, and—the latest focus of Pavelka’s research—spider monkeys. “Spider monkeys live in communities of 30 to 40 individuals spread out over large home ranges. They travel in small foraging parties of ever-changing size and composition. And we’re interested in understanding those dynamics better.”

Pavelka started the spider monkey project in 2007 with Hugh Notman, adjunct professor at the University of Calgary and associate professor at Athabasca University. To get the project running, they hired Kayla Hartwell, MA’10, who had years of experience working in Belize. Now a doctoral student at the University of Calgary, Hartwell has spent thousands of hours forging trails through cave-riddled hills, observing the monkeys and studying the cycles of the forest.

Kayla Hartwell, left, and local field assistant Stevan Reneau watch for monkeys in the jungle. (Photo by Germain Valladarez)Kayla Hartwell, left, and local field assistant Stevan Reneau watch for monkeys in the jungle. (Photo by Germain Valladarez)Pavelka started her first project in Belize in 1998 in the ramshackle coastal town of Monkey River. The howler monkeys she studies there live a 10-minute boat ride up-river. This bamboo-filled jungle is the site of Pavelka’s field school. More than 200 students have taken the intense three-week course, many describing the experience as life-changing.

“Pavelka was a key mentor for me,” says Dennis Jorgensen, BSc’00, MEDes’09, a member of the inaugural class and now a biologist with the World Wildlife Fund. “This first opportunity in the field led to the realization that my dream of being a field biologist was a very real possibility.”

The steep terrain and lively spider monkeys of Runaway Creek have little in common with the comparatively lethargic howler monkeys in the flatlands of Monkey River. Little in common, that is, except for hurricanes. “Three years into my study in Monkey River that site was hit by Hurricane Iris, so now I have had two natural disasters,” Pavelka says.

Having data from before and after a natural disaster is rare—more so from two sites and across two species. Large-scale habitat changes are a reality many species face. So tracking an ecosystem through a disaster is a valuable opportunity to gauge how future damaged habitats will fare.

Members of the Runaway Creek team gather high on a hillside. They watch a lone monkey perched nearby, gazing over the skeletal trees in the valley below. It will be a long time before myriad shades of jungle green return. And they might disappear again. Scientists predict the frequency and intensity of tropical storms will rise. If so, the hurricane-fire cycle at Runaway Creek could become commonplace.

Though it’s a scientific boon for the researchers, Pavelka simply shakes her head: “I just want a field site that doesn’t get hit by a hurricane.”

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