The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

The Howler Monkey Story

So I just enjoyed a good laugh over some DAMN, NATURE, YOU SCARY-type stories.  (It’s always funny when it happens to someone else.)

I’ve been super-lucky so far with my bug-collecting…other than the praying mantis incident, I’ve escaped relatively unscathed, mainly because I try to stay away from bugs with stingy-looking bits. 

That’s not to say I haven’t had run-ins with nature.    I have, as a matter of fact, been bitten by a pretty good portion of the larger mammals of the province of Ontario: fox, raccoon, skunk, squirrel (both red and grey), groundhog (ohhhh, that one HURT), porcupine, otter, bat…  when one is an intern at a wildlife rehabilitation centre, one’s #1 workplace hazard tends to be “wildlife”.

I’ve been nipped by a handful of snakes (non-venomous thankyouverymuch) and numerous times by one particularly cantankerous bullfrog…did you know frogs have teeth?  They totes do.  It’s WEIRD.

Oh, and my left pointer finger once got slashed by the incisors of a very pissed-off vampire bat (I had it in a bag so I could weigh and examine it).  The wound bled and bled and bled (thank you, anticoagulants) – which was cool because it allowed me to go around to everyone within earshot going, “DUDE, I totes got bit by a vampire bat!!!”  for hours and everyone was like, “OMG no way!”,  and I was all like, “Way!”, and they were all like, “Whooooaaa.”   Yeah, that was cool.   Trying to explain the situation to an ER doc back in Canada after deciding I should probably get a rabies booster was not so cool.  It’s very obnoxious to have to say, “Yes, doctor, it was a vampire bat.  Yes I’m sure.  Desmotus rotundusROTUNDUSWill you stop looking at your flow charts and just give me the damn shot?!?!?!”  Honest to god, doctors have big text books with flow charts about bat bites to determine whether a rabies shot is warranted.   Yeesh.

Although many of these experiences made me uncomfortable (in the ow ow owie ow sense) none really scared me much.

I think my only truly DAMN, NATURE, YOU SCARY moment was in Belize.  I was there with a small group of undergrads for a three-week crash course of the ecology of tropical bats; we were in the heart of the small Central American country, nestled along a freshwater lagoon and surrounded by largely unexplored Mayan ruins.  It was our first night in the rainforest.   It was remote and dark as hell.  There were three of us (me and two other students) stationed next to a mist net we’d set up along a clearing in the jungle.  Our head lamps were off.   Leaving them on would mean scaring the bats, which would be bad for bat research-type activities. 

Picture if you will: three completely green city kids with combined field experience of  “zero” .  It is nearing midnight.  Pitch black except for the bazillion stars that blanket the sky all the way down to the flat horizon.  Deafeningly noisy from all the jungle critters that don’t sleep.  We cannot sit down because there are tarantulas and scorpions and poisonous snakes and ants the size of my head.  Plus jaguars.  If you sit down you waste about 2 seconds of perfectly good running-away-from-jaguars time by having to stand back up.   We are pretty much scared shitless.  

Then, nearby, we start to hear a troup of howler monkeys talking amongst themselves.  And by “talking” I mean “making otherwordly freaky utterings and moans and roars”.   We’d seen and heard quite a few monkeys earlier, during daylight, and although they were unnerving they were more interesting than anything.    At night it’s a whole different story. 

The monkeys noisily made their way over to our net station and parked themselves directly overhead.  They chattered and rummaged and banged around up in the canopy while we held our breaths and waited for them to move on.    After about ten minutes, they did, roaring as they went.  We started to relax.

What we didn’t know was that one bastard monkey had stayed behind.  And that he had quietly snuck down a tree until he was a mere few feet from the ground.  And the tree in which he was hiding was about 5 feet behind me and my nervous compatriots.   And what did that bastard monkey do?


And we screamed.  Literally shrieked and clutched eachother in the pitch blackness and screamed our fool heads off, convinced we were about to be eaten or at the very least messily rent limb from limb.

Our PI (who was neither young nor sleek nor athletically inclined in the slightest)  came “running” over from our main base about 1 mile down a narrow jungle path.   He stopped, doubled over into a near-fetal position with his hands on his knees, and managed to gasp out, “What happened?”   

Our story was met with a withering look that screamed “EPIC TROPICAL FIELD WORK FAIL” and he stomped back down the path to his own station.

It’s funny now.  We quickly got quite used to monkey visitors and even mustered up the nerve to sit on the forest floor at night (just keep your pant legs tucked into your socks and you’re good to go).   The PI eventually forgave me for being such a wuss; he took to calling me “Jungle Jane” by the end of the trip and even shared his carefully guarded bottle of scotch with me on our last night there – a truly memorable evening of geekery, tasty drinkables, sitting on a rickety dock that stretched out over the lagoon and basking in the light of a million stars which twinkled off the still, black waters where they mingled with the red glint of crocodile eyeshine.   

A life-changing experience  to be sure (and totally worth the  thinking I was going to die for a few minutes).    I kind of hope there will be other opportunities to experience the sublime terror of DAMN, NATURE, YOU SCARY in the future.  Hm.  I’m pretty sure there’s a line item in my new research budget for “guys with guns to keep polar bears from eating PhD student”, so a Geek can dream, yes?

4 responses to “The Howler Monkey Story

  1. Rachel December 2, 2009 at 6:51 PM

    First, frogs have teeth, wtf?

    Second, does getting bit by a vampire bat turn you into a vampire?

    Third, Oh. My. God. I think pee would have been running down my leg if I was standing in a dark jungle and heard that king kong meets godzilla noise. Geesh. Your geekery comes with quiet a lot of scary shit.

    • The Geek In Question December 2, 2009 at 7:15 PM

      First, yes. I really had no idea until I felt them on my finger. It feels like 50 or 80 grit sandpaper. They’re called “maxillary teeth” are are tiny, conical teeth in the upper jaw used to hold prey in the mouth before swallowing.

      Second, yes. Next.

      Third, I came -this- close to peeing. It was scary.

  2. Bug Girl December 3, 2009 at 1:16 PM

    That was HILARIOUS. thanks for sharing!
    And howlers are really really loud. Airplane loud. So I don’t blame you at all for freaking out. 🙂

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