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


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

This Team in the News

Senior Spotlight: Reflections from the Class of 2022


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
  • Israel Golden, Master of Environmental Management

/undergraduate Team Members

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

/zcommunity Team Members

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