David Keeble took part in the first Uganda Field Course in September 2018. The blog post below was written as an assignment for the module. It is published here with permission.
A guest blog post by David Keeble (Y2, BSc Zoology, Bangor University)
Towards the end of the summer I had an opportunity of a lifetime, a field course trip to Kibale National Park, Uganda, studying primate behaviour. It was the best experience of life in the field I could have ever wished for. The trip gave me a full understanding of what it was like to live and study in the field, where anything could happen at any moment. One of the highlights of the trip was during our data collection days for our group projects. On the last day of data collection, we had the privilege to witness red colobus monkeys gnawing on and licking bricks.
We set out like our other data collection days at 7:30am local time (2 hours ahead of GMT) to go in search of the group of red colobus monkeys. It took a while before we eventually found the group and when we did we started straight away with our observations. At first, we were focusing our attention to the trees in which the monkeys were resting, feeding and foraging etc. The group were quite active and after a while had started to move across to trees that were behind us. I followed the monkeys round to the other trees and carried on observing them. One of the others in my group had then spotted some members of the red colobus group on the ground by a brickhouse, bearing in mind that these monkeys are arboreal this was quite an unusual sight to see. I went over to take a look at these monkeys and got my camera out in hope of snapping some pictures of these colobus on the ground. After a while, I wondered how close I could get to the red colobus without frightening them. I walked round to a ditch behind one of the brick-houses that were within the area we were in (there were three scattered around in a triangle-like shape). I laid on the floor by the ditch with my camera to get photos of some of the colobus that were about 15 metres in-front of me. Not a single monkey was bothered by my presence, they just carried on with what they were doing, gnawing on the bricks. I was amazed that they weren’t bothered by my presence but also intrigued that they were gnawing on these bricks. It is a behaviour that I had heard of prior to witnessing, but never something I would have thought that I would see in the wild! It was breath-taking to be so close and witness a behaviour that is quite uncommon to see in the wild.
After several minutes I told the others in my group to come over and watch the colobus from where I was because of the great view I had of observing them. Around the brickhouse where I was looking there seemed to be between 7 and 10 colobus monkeys all gnawing away at the bricks. On the other brickhouse, which was by the forests edge, were around 20 colobuses, all bunched up together in smaller groups, of 3 or 4, trying to get at the same part of the brickhouse. Again, the colobus took little/no notice when the others in my group came around to where I was, which was fascinating as I would have thought that the colobus would have run off and have been very cautious when on the ground. This is due to prior knowledge of them being arboreal and being a predated species that chimpanzees like to hunt. My assumption for this is that the red colobus have been habituated to humans due to the area being a hotspot for researches to come and conduct their studies on the different primate species, in particular chimpanzees.
I soon realised that we were within the core of the group as there were red colobus all around us, in the trees and on the ground, with large numbers around the brick houses. To be surrounded by all these colobuses is something that I will never be able to recreate, it certainly felt like we were part of the red colobus group. Just watching the colobus in their natural environment is something I’m going to cherish, seeing all the juveniles playing with each other and some of the adults fighting, along with those just gnawing away at the bricks. When I looked closely at some of the individuals it was obvious that they had been gnawing on the bricks as their mouths were red from the bricks. It looked like they had lipstick on!We assumed that the bricks were ‘acting’ as a salt lick for the red colobus which was why they were gnawing away at the bricks to get at the salts contained within. This is an interesting area to look further into and to study more as there aren’t that many of papers on red colobus gnawing on bricks for salt.
To have been privileged with the observation of such a unique and under-studied behaviour, and to have sat within in the core of the red colobus group without disrupting their natural behaviour was an experience of a lifetime. The trip has given me a greater awareness of what life is like in the field and a clearer idea of what I would like to do after university. There is still so much that is yet to be discovered for all species that the options for the field are limitless. It was an incredible experience that I would encourage any budding zoologist to go on as it ticks all the boxes and so many more!