For the first time, two albino spider monkeys have appeared in the wild. Danny Schmidt captured the first photos and videos of them; we asked him to explain why the ghost monkeys spell doom for their eco system.
IndefinitelyWild: How’d you hear about the ghost monkeys?
Danny Schmidt: I first heard about the albino brown spider monkeys through a colleague in Bogota, Federico Pardo. We went to grad school together and have collaborated on many projects since. He mentioned the albinos and his connection to the researcher Dr Andres Link, who studies the family groups of which the albinos are part of. We were looking for an interesting entrance to the story of threatened biodiversity in Colombia and we knew the albinos were it.
IW: Who came up with the “ghost monkey” nickname?
DS: The nickname came was something I came up with when I started researching and writing treatments for the story. I wasn’t interested as much in coming up with something catchy as I was with giving the albinos a greater meaning in the context of what they represent. They are alive, but they represent a species on the brink of extinction. These “ghosts” are bringing us a message. They are emblems of an ecosystem in trouble, of a fragmented habitat that forces genetic inbreeding, and of an iconic species — the largest primate in the Americas — that is on the verge of going extinct in the near future.
IW: How does the genetic diversity of one population of one species of monkey matter to the wider ecosystem?
DS: Brown spider monkeys are a keystone species – they play a crucial role in the functioning of their tropical ecosystem. They eat from a huge variety of fruit trees and thus serve a critical function as seed dispersers. Spider monkeys prefer large swaths of undisturbed, primary forests. So in the preservation of brown spider monkey habitat, we also create the right conditions for other animals to thrive — sloths, tamanduas, jaguars.
When the genetic diversity of brown spider monkeys is compromised by habitat fragmentation, it means that the wider ecosystem is also at risk. A healthy population of brown spider monkeys means that the ecosystem is functioning properly.
IW: Who first discovered them?
DS: The albino brown spider monkeys were first discovered by Dr Andres Link of the Universidad de Los Andes and his team of researchers. They have been studying these populations of monkeys extensively, working for many years to habituate family groups and trying to better understand their importance to the maintenance of tropical biodiversity.
IW: Describe the environment these monkeys live in.
DS: The monkeys live in a tropical forest that is fairly impenetrable and often difficult to work in. The ecosystem is bisected by rivers that were our only entrance to the deeper parts of the jungle. There were the obvious tropical afflictions — insane heat and humidity, armies of mosquitoes, bumble bees the size of golf balls, and the dreaded “cowboy” wasps that scared the locals far more than jaguars, caimans, and piranhas. But really, what made photographing the spider monkeys so hard was just trying to keep up with them. They are so incredibly agile moving through the canopy with their long legs and prehensile tail that functions as a 5th limb. For us awkward, sweating bipedal monkeys loaded with tripods and heavy backpacks, it took an immense amount of energy just to walk through the forest — especially in a place where every plant has evolved to have spikes, thorns, or a symbiotic relationship with biting ants that come to its defense at the first sign of trouble. Luckily we had great help in the guides and researchers of Dr Link’s team who really made the project possible.
IW: What factors have reduced genetic diversity here?
DS: The primary factors that have caused this dramatic habitat fragmentation and genetic bottleneck are cattle ranching and palm oil monoculture. These mega agriculture projects are plundering tropical forests not only in Colombia, but all over the world. Seen from the air, these palm oil plantations are endless miles of neatly organized rows of this one, single plant. There is a headlong rush to perpetuate this monoculture in one of the most biodiverse places on earth. This is an incredibly sad paradox, but is representative of the short-term economic policies that undervalue the preservation of wild places in the name of making a quick buck.
IW: What efforts are being made to reverse this decline in local diversity?
DS: Dr Andres Link’s research group Proyecto Primates is working hard in this part of Colombia to protect the remaining habitat for brown spider monkeys.
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