Understanding Monkey Movement Using Conservation Technology (2021-2022)


Tropical forest loss changes how animals interact with their habitat. These changes in behavior, driven by habitat change, can threaten the persistence of species and have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem. 

Forest maintenance and restoration requires natural processes like animal seed dispersal to sustain tree diversity. Fruit-eating, canopy-dwelling primates are often prolific seed dispersers. Their movement through the canopy determines where seeds are planted and grow, creating a template for the future forest. However, these animals are also sensitive to habitat changes because their movement through the forest depends on the three-dimensional canopy structure. 

Panama’s Azuero Peninsula was once covered by seasonally dry tropical forest. But extensive clearing for cattle ranching in the early 20th century left only small, discontinuous fragments. Today, declining ranching presents opportunities to restore native forests to benefit both people and wildlife. Spider monkeys, the largest frugivores in the region, are excellent seed dispersers critical to the health of the region’s forests.

Project Description

This project aims to inform forest restoration and spider monkey conservation on the Azuero Peninsula through research and local partnerships. The project is one of only a few studies of Azuero spider monkeys and is the first to empirically study primate seed dispersal in the region. 

Team members will place GPS collars on high-ranking males from six known spider monkey groups in the study area. To model spider monkey movement, team members will use step selection functions, which compare covariates at observed points to those at randomly generated alternative points. They will extract forest attribute covariates, such as canopy height and age, from along monkey movement paths using remotely sensed imagery. 

Working with local collaborators Fundación Pro Eco Azuero and BioFuture Panamá, the team will evaluate existing restoration plans to determine which areas should be prioritized for restoration to optimize avenues for monkey movement. Team members will contribute to outreach by visiting schools to talk with students and assisting with curriculum development for a future female scientist summer camp.

Anticipated Outputs

High-resolution movement data for six spider monkeys made freely available on Movebank; peer-reviewed publications; blog posts; lesson plans about seed dispersal in tropical forests for use by local collaborators

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 2 graduate students and 4 undergraduate students from across disciplines, including ecology, engineering, policy, sociology and education. Graduate students should have substantial international research experience and/or a strong interest in developing and using technology for conservation research. Undergraduate students should be from nonscience disciplines (education, sociology, etc.) who ultimately want to work in conservation and want a deeper understanding of the research process. Individuals from backgrounds underrepresented in conservation and field-based research are encouraged to apply.

This project will give participants the opportunity to conduct international field research in tropical forests, work with non-human primates and conduct vegetation surveys. Fieldwork participants will engage with local collaborators and community members, which will provide practice of language skills and an introduction to community-based conservation. 

Students will also have the opportunity to engage in science writing and communication to diverse audiences both internationally through collaborative outreach and domestically through popular press writing. Graduate students will have leadership roles in the field and data analysis and will be encouraged to mentor undergraduates throughout the project.

This interdisciplinary team will take a holistic approach to conservation so that each team member’s perspectives and skills will be valued throughout the project. For each task, one team member will be assigned as lead and a second as support. Task leads will complete the majority of the task and be responsible for the final product. Task supports will contribute ideas and feedback as each task is executed. Weekly meetings will consist of group discussions on papers related to one or more aspect of the project.

Anna Nordseth will serve as project manager.

Student travel opportunities to Panama are to be determined. Fieldwork will take place over a two-month period, likely June and July, with work taking place for five days (40 hours) per week. Ideally, travel will take place in Summer 2021; however, if COVID-19 restrictions persist, travel could be moved to Summer 2022.


Summer 2021 – Summer 2022

  • Summer 2021 (optional): Teambuilding exercises; fieldwork; collaring of spider monkeys; environmental data collection
  • Fall 2021: Literature and data analysis; blog posts
  • Spring 2022: Literature and data analysis; environmental education lesson plans
  • Summer 2022 (optional): Alternative field season


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available


Image: Spider monkeys at BCI, by Brian Gratwicke, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Spider monkeys at BCI.

Team Leaders

  • Martin Brooke, Pratt School of Engineering-Electrical & Computer Engineering
  • Anna Nordseth, University Program in Ecology–Ph.D. Student
  • Jennifer Swenson, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Justin Wright, Arts & Sciences-Biology

/graduate Team Members

  • Adelmut Duffing Romero, Global Health - MSc

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Dana Adcock, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Chloe Beittel
  • Thanh-Nhu Bui
  • Christiana Liam Jo Claros
  • Samantha Lowe, Biology (BS)
  • Danyang Shi

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Ruth Metzel, Fundación Proyecto Eco Azuero (FPEA)
  • Danilo Polo, Biofuture Panama
  • Sandra Vazquez de Zambrano, Fundación Proyecto Eco Azuero (FPEA)