Scientist’s Four-Decade Journey to Safeguard the Largest Monkey in the Americas

by Chloe Baker
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monkey conservation

In a threatened tropical ecosystem, where the emerald-green canopy sways and whispers, a troop of slender, golden-gray monkeys gracefully traverses a landscape more endangered than the Amazon.

Forty years ago, Karen Strier embarked on a quest to study and protect the largest monkey species in the Americas. At that time, only 50 of these magnificent creatures remained in the Atlantic forest of Minas Gerais state, southeastern Brazil.

Strier’s deep affection for the northern muriqui captured her heart, leading her to devote her life to their preservation and initiate one of the world’s most enduring primate studies.

In an expedition with The Big Big News, the American primatologist expressed her profound fascination, stating, “I adore every aspect of them: their captivating beauty, their elegance, and even their pleasant aroma, reminiscent of cinnamon. It was an immersive experience that resonated with both my scientific mind and my personal sensibilities.”

Initially, scientists possessed scant knowledge of this species, except that it teetered on the brink of extinction. Rampant deforestation had significantly diminished and fragmented its habitat, creating isolated groups of muriquis.

To Strier’s surprise, the northern muriqui exhibited stark differences from the large primates studied by renowned primatologists Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, who respectively popularized chimpanzees and mountain gorillas as iconic symbols of conservation.

While previous research predominantly focused on primates in Africa and Asia, where dominant males frequently engaged in hierarchical power struggles, Strier herself had spent six months studying baboons in Kenya.

“Muriquis are at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of peacefulness,” she remarked.

In 1983, during her first year of research, the biologist spent 14 months observing muriquis in the rainforest. These slender vegetarians, measuring up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) from head to tail and weighing up to 33 pounds (15 kilograms), can live up to 45 years. However, due to their reproductive cycle, females can only give birth once every three years, impeding efforts to replenish the species.

Strier observed that male muriquis spent considerable time in harmonious proximity, often within arm’s reach. Unlike most other primates, when faced with competition for resources or potential mates, they do not engage in fights but instead opt to wait, avoid conflicts, or even embrace one another.

This remarkable display of amicability earned them the moniker “hippie monkey” among locals and scientists alike. Additionally, they are known as “forest gardeners” due to their role as seed dispersers. Feeding on fruits from tall trees, which many other animals cannot reach, they deposit the seeds through defecation onto the forest floor.

Gender dynamics among muriquis also exhibit unconventional traits among larger primates. Strier’s initial research uncovered similarities with bonobos, as muriqui females are comparable in size to males, affording them significant autonomy. Within muriqui societies, females venture out independently to find mates.

“We now recognize a broader range of variations among primates, and I believe muriquis played a pivotal role in deepening our understanding of this diversity,” Strier asserted.

Within the 2,300-acre (950-hectare) Feliciano Miguel Abdala reserve, a privately protected area serving as Strier’s research base, the population of northern muriquis has grown nearly fivefold, reaching 232 individuals. This figure accounts for roughly one-fifth of the species’ critically endangered population.

Russell Mittermeier, an American primatologist and chief conservation officer at Re:wild, acclaimed the extraordinary longevity and quality of Strier’s primate study, stating, “There are very few projects of this nature that have maintained such continuous excellence over such a long period worldwide.”

Strier and her team have developed an intimate familiarity with each muriqui in the reserve, recognizing them by name and their familial connections, employing detailed illustrations of their facial pigmentation and other physical attributes rather than tagging or marking them.

After the devastating loss of 100 muriquis, approximately one-third of the reserve’s population, due to a drought and a yellow fever outbreak over five years, Strier has ardently advocated for the establishment of forest corridors and the implementation of species reintroduction projects.

In 2016, Fernanda Pedreira Tabacow, one of Strier’s former students and a trusted collaborator, received distressing news that only two male muriquis remained in a forest patch in Ibitipoca, southwest of the Feliciano Miguel Abdala reserve. Recognizing the imminent extinction of the species without intervention, she took decisive action.

“I believed it was the final gasp for the species in that area,” Tabacow admitted.

In a bid to ensure their survival, Tabacow introduced a female muriqui to the region, but before the animals could mate, she disappeared. Faced with this failed attempt, more drastic measures became necessary. Tabacow and her team relocated both males, along with three females who had become separated from their groups during their search for a partner, and two orphaned young muriquis, to an enclosed area spanning nearly 15 acres (6 hectares) within their native forest.

A year later, in 2020, the experiment yielded its first success with the birth of a muriqui infant. Once the group comprises at least a dozen members, the ultimate goal is to release them into the wild, according to Tabacow.

“The knowledge we gained from Strier’s research greatly facilitated our efforts and helped us avoid many potential pitfalls,” said Tabacow, who collaborates with Strier in the reserve. “This project is unprecedented, lacking any precedents to follow, but our extensive understanding of the species’ behavior serves as our guiding light.”

Recently, primatologists, environmentalists, and muriqui enthusiasts from Brazil and around the world convened in the small city of Caratinga to celebrate Strier’s uninterrupted four-decade study. During the event, she expressed her gratitude to colleagues and the numerous students who continue to carry forward her work.

While on stage, she passionately advocated for the establishment of a forest corridor connecting the Feliciano Miguel Abdala reserve to another area located 25 miles (40 kilometers) away, urging the representative from the Ministry of Environment to endorse the initiative. Emphasizing the imperative of expanding the northern muriqui’s habitat range, she recalled the “terrifying” yellow fever outbreak of a few years ago.

“We couldn’t find the muriquis, and the howler monkeys were nearly extinct, leaving the forest eerily silent,” Strier recounted. “Our achievements were in jeopardy, on the verge of vanishing within months. The vulnerability of the muriquis reaffirmed the critical importance of our unwavering dedication. Our work is far from over.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about monkey conservation

What is the focus of Karen Strier’s four-decade quest?

Karen Strier’s four-decade quest focuses on studying and saving the largest monkey in the Americas, known as the northern muriqui.

How many northern muriquis were left when Karen Strier began her research?

When Karen Strier began her research, there were only 50 northern muriquis left in the Atlantic forest of Minas Gerais state, Brazil.

How are northern muriquis different from other large primates studied by Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey?

Unlike other large primates studied by Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, northern muriquis exhibit peaceful behavior and avoid aggressive conflicts, making them quite distinct.

How has the northern muriqui population fared in the Feliciano Miguel Abdala reserve?

In the Feliciano Miguel Abdala reserve, the northern muriqui population has grown nearly fivefold, reaching a count of 232 individuals, which constitutes about one-fifth of the critically endangered species’ overall population.

What is the significance of forest corridors and species reintroduction projects for muriqui conservation?

Forest corridors and species reintroduction projects are crucial for muriqui conservation as they help address habitat fragmentation and provide a means for muriquis to move between isolated pockets, promoting genetic diversity and population growth.

What is the ultimate goal for the captive muriquis relocated by Fernanda Pedreira Tabacow?

The ultimate goal for the captive muriquis relocated by Fernanda Pedreira Tabacow is to establish a group comprising at least a dozen members and then release them into the wilderness to contribute to the wild muriqui population.

What did Karen Strier advocate for during her 40th-year celebration?

During her 40th-year celebration, Karen Strier advocated for the creation of a forest corridor linking the Feliciano Miguel Abdala reserve to another area, emphasizing the need for a broader range for the northern muriquis and the importance of conservation efforts.

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