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More Research Needed to Help Save Monkeys

August 3, 2007

SAN RAMÓN – Populations of Costa Rica’s four species of monkeys – howler, white-faced capuchin, spider and squirrel – have plummeted an average of 50% in the past 12 years – and biologists lack the research necessary to do something about it.

That conclusion and others resulted from the presentations of dozens of scientific studies at the first annual Conference on Costa Rica’s Primates, held last week in the rolling hills and coffee country that surrounds the University of Costa Rica (UCR) regional campus in the western Central Valley town of San Ramón.

“In general terms, the situation is much sadder, and much more serious, than we thought. There is still a lot more research that must be done to find out what is happening out there,” said Gustavo Gutiérrez, a UCR biologist who helped coordinate the event.

Studies presented by the country’s foremost wildlife experts identified a wide and startling array of health problems in Costa Rica’s monkeys, from cataracts and dental problems to viruses more commonly found in humans, said UCR biologist Ronald Sánchez in a July 26 presentation of a report finished earlier this year (TT, April 27).

The cause of these ailments are varied, say scientists, ranging from deteriorating habitat to global warming and increasingly sinister effects of agricultural chemicals used on banana and pineapple plantations.

Perhaps the most startling revelation: Monkey populations have become increasingly isolated by the onslaught of development, leading to inbreeding among populations and genetically weak populations that are highly susceptible to extinction, Gutiérrez said.

Despite Costa Rica’s frequent boast that 26% of its national territory lies in parklands, the lack of connectivity between them could someday spell disaster for monkeys.

Costa Rica’s monkeys, when compared to those of South America, are far more limited in territory and therefore, fare far worse in terms of genetic variability – meaning one serious weather event, as occurred in 2005 in Corcovado National Park, on the southern Pacific coast, when 40% of monkeys died after a season of heavy rain and cold weather, could wipe out populations (TT, March 31, 2006).

Biologists took blood samples and studied the genetics and health of 329 monkeys of all four species to arrive at the results, but Gutiérrez cautions many of the studies’ conclusions are only preliminary and much work is left to be done.

“It is a grave situation,” he said. “329 animals may seem like a lot, but we need to continue these studies in other areas.”

Biologists spent the third day of the conference developing a management plan that would seek to remedy some of the problems faced by monkeys.

The new primate management plan, which is still in progress, will involve more studies to determine how endangered the species are, and what regions of the country are most important for individual species’ continued survival.

Gutiérrez also emphasized the importance of communication between experts inside Costa Rica, and outside, to ensure research is not repeated, and funds are well spent.

Gutiérrez said he is encouraged by the number of young people, many of them biology students, who attended the conference and took part in the workshop.

“It gives us hope for the future,” he said.

He said the biggest hurdle facing young researchers is not mustering up enough enthusiasm, but enough funding.

“I can capture all the monkeys I need. What’s more elusive is the funding to make these studies happen,” he said.


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