Cave-riddled hills jut steeply from the flat pine savanna of Runaway Creek Nature Reserve in Belize. Tapirs, jaguars and wild pigs call the forest-blanketed hillsides home. The territory also encompasses the range of a group of spider monkeys whose lives University of Calgary anthropologist Mary Pavelka and graduate students Kayla Hartwell and Jane Champion have chronicled for four years. The team has amassed a detailed record that goes beyond the animals' daily comings and goings to include measuring stress hormones and the parasites that inhabit their intestinal tracts.
Years in the jungle confers exposure to the natural cycles that inevitably beset any forested ecosystem, opening a broader panorama on the dynamics of the animals' lives. In October 2010 Hurricane Richard ravaged the jungle, uprooting countless trees and stripping foliage. The destruction, which left humans and monkeys disoriented, caused the researchers to switch gears and track the recovery of the forest as well as forge new trails through the most afflicted areas to see how the monkeys fared.
Fruit trees had suffered extensive damage, forcing the monkeys to consume what leaves they could find. Just as the jungle started to recover, the dry season brought scorching temperatures—and with it, of course, fire.
The surrounding savanna commonly burns but the abundance of hurricane deadfall drove flames into the hills, reducing huge tracts of forest to char. For weeks smoke and ash choked the researchers as they scrambled over the smoldering tree remains. The fires spared the spider monkeys, but a number of individuals from a nearby group of howler monkeys succumbed to the blaze. Food shortages and the stresses of a decimated habitat forced the spider monkeys to adapt yet again. The group has proved its resilience, but how it will fare with the likelihood of more storms followed by yet more habitat burns, a possible by-product of the planet's inexorable warming, remains unknown.