Elizabeth Pimley on primates in West Africa

First published in Wild Travel last year, Dr Elizabeth Pimley (Research Associate in Biosciences) talks about her work on a fascinating group of primates: the pottos, angwantibos and bushbabies

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If you want to find out about the wildlife that comes out in the rainforest after sunset, you need to head out with some good lights fitted with red filters. The rainforest at night is a noisy place with a cacophony of sounds from frogs, bats, tree hyraxes, palm civets, bushbabies and owls. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark you being to pick out movements between the trees and if you look carefully you can see the reflective eyes of a variety of nocturnal animals illuminated by the torch. In fact once you become accustomed to the forest sounds and sights you can differentiate different species from their calls, with the long owls of the palm civet, the rhythmical croaks from frogs, the hoots of owls and the variety of calls from the small mobile bushbabies, which vary depending on their meaning from long distance contact calls that carry through the forest to brief alarm calls if you get too near. However, even with the more silent nocturnal animals such as the potto, it is possible to distinguish this secretive primate by its distinctive orange eyeshine. This slow-moving primate tends to use smell rather than calls to communicate with other pottos and at 1kg is larger than the smaller bushbabies. Other nocturnal animals also have distinctive eyeshines ranging from the small orange/yellow eyeshines of large moths, frogs and bats, the pale blue eyeshine of palm civets and gennets (cat-like carnivores), to the yellow- orange eyeshine of bushbabies.
For many years I have been interested in the behaviour and ecology of nocturnal primates (pottos, angwantibos and bushbabies) inhabiting Africa’s rainforests. I have undertaken research in Uganda, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and Ivory Coast to unravel the mysteries behind the secretive lives of these small primates, in particular the potto, which has remained one of the least studied of the primates. I have undertaken a long-term study of the Central potto (Perodicticus edwardsi) and Cross River Allen’s bushbaby (Sciurocheirus cameronensis) in Cameroon, which revealed many interesting facts about their ecology and behaviour. Of particular note, was the finding that the Central pottos previously thought to lead relatively solitary lives actually associated in pairs and although not together throughout the night, maintained contact with scentmarks rather like you or I would send a letter to friends and relatives. The pottos mainly eat fruit supplemented with gum and any insects, snails and small mammals they can catch. The pottos in Cameroon had developed a partiality for bananas and would sometimes come out of the forest to nibble on one or two bananas in the adjacent farms, although leaving plenty for the human owners!

The next phase of the project is to carry out long-term studies on recently recognised species of potto, namely the Eastern potto (P. ibeanus) and the Western potto (P. potto). In order to set up a long-term study it is essential to carry out a short-term survey at the proposed fieldsite to determine if there is sufficient abundance of primates to make a study worthwhile, assess viewing conditions in the forest as it is important to be able to get good observational data, and of course check if the population is trappable. As the only way to study these secretive primates, which live up in the forest canopy, is to radiocollar individuals and radiotrack them. Another important factor is to ensure the necessary logistics are in place to enable a field project to be successful, for example good transport links, and with nocturnal work a power supply is essential to power torches and tracking equipment. Another essential point is to ensure that links with the local NGOs and government departments are set up and that there is support for the research from the country. Finally you need reliable field assistants to assist with the study too, so you need support from local communities around the proposed fieldsite.
I am currently in the process of setting up a long term study of the Western potto in Ivory Coast. I have already undertaken a short-term study of pottos in Tai Forest and found sufficient numbers for a longer term study. Logistical arrangements are already in place and the local research institute (Centre Suisse de Recherches Scientifiques en Côte d’Ivoire/Tai Monkey Project) is keen to facilitate a longer term study. So now I just need to secure some funding and find a keen student to carry out the study with me……

Dr Elizabeth Pimley,
Research Associate in Biosciences,
University of Gloucestershire; Senior Ecologist at Worcestershire Wildlife Consultancy. Email epimley@glos.ac.uk

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