A Toppin’s titi monkey (Plecturocebus toppini) at Posada Amazonas

Lucy Millington shares a blog about her research around the factors that influence Neotropical primate community composition and abundance across landscape mosaics.

Research Background:

I study primate conservation ecology in the Peruvian Amazon. I am interested in the effect of habitat disturbance on Amazonian primate communities (comprising of spider monkeys, howler monkeys, capuchins, titi monkeys, squirrel monkeys and tamarins). Understanding these primates’ ecological requirements is important, as this information can be used in conservation management planning to ensure these primates’ survival in a rapidly changing environment. In addition to using traditional ground surveys, we are also using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, to detect primates and quantify habitat quality. This research uses multiple approaches to investigate how differing degrees of habitat disturbance might affect forest structure and resource availability and how a primate community responds to those changes.

Research Update:

In 2023 I began my final PhD field season in Peru, accompanied by an amazing team made up of MSc students (Adam Macpherson and Freya Ford) and recent BSc graduate Brontë Bowling from Manchester Met, Peruvian research assistants (Angie Aracelly Julia Remigio Bustillos, Lourdes Grace Ponce Huaranga, Cristel Sandoval Garcia and Stephanie Alexandra Riofrio Guarderas) and Dr Colin Dubreuil from the University of Wolverhampton. With the continued support of Rainforest Expeditions, our hosts and project partners in Tambopata, and that of Claudia Torres-Sovero and David Segurado of LinnAero Space Peru, and as part of the 8-primate project, this season we were able to survey all of our study sites in Tambopata.

Maps showing the study region (Tambopata), southeastern Peru, and a zoomed in map showing the study sites:

  1. Posada Amazonas, a previously logged and hunted lowland forest, managed by the Infierno community (Ese Eja) as an area for ecotourism.
  2. Refugio Amazonas, a previously logged forest now used for ecotourism and as a Brazil nut concession.
  3. Tambopata Research Centre, a protected area within the Tambopata Reserve.

This year was particularly exciting as we got to trial the use of UAVs for both primate and vegetation surveys! We worked with David Segurado from LinnAero Space, Peru, an expert drone pilot with years of experience conducting drone surveys in the tropics (a must when working in tall, dense forests where the risk of crashing is high!) There are very few studies using UAVs for primate surveys, and as such there are still a lot of unknowns in terms of methodology. Arboreal primates that live in the tropics are notoriously difficult to survey – just imagine walking through a tall, dense tropical forest trying to see something that’s resting 30m above your head; when visibility is low, and humidity is high it can be quite tricky!

One way to mitigate this difficulty is to use UAVs for primate surveys, by surveying from above we hope to miss those primates that are hiding in the top of the canopy! The drone uses multiple sensors to record various types of data – RGB (photography), video, and thermal are the most useful for our primate surveys.

Thermal images showing a spider monkey at the Tambopata Research Centre

For our vegetation surveys we use RGB, multispectral (records wavelengths outside the visible spectrum) and LiDAR: Light Detection and Ranging (uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances to the Earth’s surface). These data will allow us to create high resolution maps, which are essential for understanding the habitat characteristics that might affect primate communities.

I am currently in the middle of analysing ground and drone survey data, and whilst it is quite a steep learning curve, it is amazing to finally see it all come together. The plan is to submit my PhD thesis in 2025 (wish me luck)!

If you’re interested in following my research (or just for wildlife and drone photos!) then please follow me on Twitter/Instagram (handles below).

Twitter – @LucyMillington3

Instagram – lucymillington_23

This research was support by the Leverhulme Trust, Rainforest Expeditions, LinnAero Space Peru, Global Wildlife Conservation, Primate Society of Great Britain, Royal Geographic Society, Ideawild and Manchester Met’s Research Support Award. 

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