What a great opportunity this blog could be to let all of you out there know what it’s like to be a Research Assistant for the PPP. Well now we want to do just that! Here is the first of what will hopefully be many blogs from our hardworking assistants.
Alice’s Blog on Lajuma
“Sitting in my University library on a cold January evening an advert appeared in my inbox, ‘Opportunity to follow and study primates in South Africa.’ I remember reading it, dreaming that such a job could be a reality, almost not believing it. I instantly sent the research centre my CV and now, nine months later, here I am in the picturesque South African mountains living that dream, far, far away from any library!
My name is Alice Newton and I am a Biology undergraduate student at Cardiff University. Part of this course is to carry out a Professional Training Year before graduation, to gain invaluable skills that prepare us for the wider world of work. Animal behaviour has always interested me and I do anything to spend time outdoors, so the job sounded perfect for me. On September 15th I arrived in South Africa’s Soutpansberg Mountains, where I intend to stay for 10 months. Although I have travelled far from home to an exotic place, it is definitely not a holiday! It is a challenging, but equally rewarding placement, which I feel so lucky to be a part of. Not only because it is such an exciting placement, but also because there are so many amazing discoveries that are currently occurring at the research centre.
A photo of me in ‘my office’, overlooking Lajuma, South Africa.
My usual week involves following samango and vervet monkeys, alongside phenology and my own personal research time. Following a primate troop for the day means leaving camp at 4am and watching the monkeys awaken, then recording their behaviour throughout the day until sunset at 6pm. I consider it such an honour seeing the monkeys wake, as I know very few people have seen this. Only last week I arrived at dawn to discover one of the vervet monkeys had had an infant overnight, so I got to name him. I chose Vespa, and I may be a bit biased but he is definitely the best monkey on the mountain!
Infant Vespa, with mother Victory.
Like all animals you cannot plan a monkey follow; everyday is always very different. One moment the troop will be feeding pleasantly, the next they are tearing through thick acacia thorns on an unstoppable mission. It definitely keeps you on your toes! The primates are wild and so subject to many threats and predators. Whilst on one of my follows a crowned eagle landed a metre in front of me on a bush where the vervets were feeding, and nearly took a monkey for its own dinner. Even I found it terrifying, I cannot begin to imagine how the vervets must have felt.
After studying the vervets for the past month, I find them particularly interesting – because there are only nine individuals in the troop you can begin to learn their characters and personalities. I especially enjoy watching the juveniles play, and the way their unique ranking system means that a juvenile can be seen being groomed by a lower ranking adult male. I have become interested in conducting a research project on the social network of this vervet troop, with the ultimate goal of working out what the ranks within the troop really are. Alongside faecal sample DNA and intense behaviour observation, I believe I will be able to do this and am excited to begin the research.
When I was young I always thought ‘adult jobs’ looked boring and monotonal, but I can guarantee that working as a primate research assistant is far from that. It is exhilarating, varied and rewarding… and I cannot wait for all the adventures and surprises just round the corner.