How do you count the monkeys in a forest?

You can’t just send out a census form. But answering that question is important for scientists and conservationists so they can develop the best possible plans for the study and preservation of these primates.

Primatologist and conservation researcher Denise Spaan has a particular interest in spider monkeys, and studies how these creatures are affected by human-induced habitat changes—particularly how the growing tourist industry affects spider monkeys in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

Spider monkeys are fascinating animals, with muscular tails that let them hang from trees with their hands-free. What do they use these amazing tails for? Eating of course, but for all sorts of other things. Spider monkey moms, for example, can use their tails to form bridges across tree gaps to allow their kid monkeys to cross.

But how do you measure the monkey population in a particular habitat? It’s a lot harder to answer that question than you might realize. Scientists still don’t know. But Spaan and others are using advances in technology to get us closer to the answer.

Walking through the forest and counting monkeys makes for wonderful exercise and lovely sightseeing, but it’s far too time-consuming given all the terrain that needs to be covered.

Spaan and her team are using drones to accelerate the effort. Fitted with infrared cameras, these remote-controlled, flying census takers can pick up monkey’s heat signatures from above and allow scientists to tally them more efficiently and more accurately.

And researchers will have even better tools in the future. The drone footage is a boon but watching all that video is extremely time-consuming. Spaan is working with Conservation AI to develop ways to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze the footage much more quickly.

About Denise Spaan

Denise is a Mexico-based National Geographic Explorer, primatologist, and conservation researcher. She is a researcher at the Universidad Veracruzana and a member of the conservation NGO ConMonoMaya, which works to conserve primates and their habitats in the Yucatan Peninsula. Her research focuses on understanding how primates cope with natural and human-induced changes in their habitats. She is particularly interested in how spider monkeys in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula are affected by the expanding tourism industry along the Caribbean coastline.

About Women Blaze Trails Festival:  

In celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11), LenovoEDU sponsored Women Blaze Trails, a virtual 3-day festival celebrating women in science, exploration, and conservation from around the world.  

The virtual festival had one simple goal: celebrating incredible women, and doing incredible things around the world, day in and day out. We’re sharing these videos from the festival so you can meet scientists, explorers, conservationists, filmmakers, photographers and more, showcasing their work, challenges, adventures, research and expeditions.