Change of plans/ Why my to-do-list keeps changing

NOTE: I wrote this on the 2nd of March while I was in Malaysia working with the Macaca Nemestrina Project (I wrote about it-incessantly). It got lost somewhere in all my scribbled diary entries about my adventures with the Pig-tailed macaques but is luckily apt at all times and for most people.

 

There were these plans I made

and promised myself I wouldn’t trade;

For anything or anyone.

 

I drew them out and circled so I wouldn’t forget

but somehow I’m again in this position filled with regret;

Unable to answer myself.

 

I guess I could say I was watching the stars

scanning the sky, hoping there was sentient life on Mars;

And those should be good reasons.

 

I heard the birds flitter and tweet

and contemplated why cows could moo but couldn’t bleat;

And those are valid thoughts

 

But I guess I am doomed to consider once or twice

my brilliant plans, and recognise distraction as my vice;

And make better plans I intend to see through.

 

Maybe I will soon realise that all my plans

are probably a distraction from some other plans;

So I embrace diversions and digress with gusto.

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Primate Diaries: 6 days of work to go

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia. Since, I don’t have great internet connection, each blog post will be an ccount of 3 days. I will try to explain biology jargon and/or provide links for them. But I’m pressed for time as internet is precious and I use Starbucks’ wifi (shoutout to Starbucks for all the caffeine). Excuse the atrocious spelling and grammar. I’m using a tablet and I miss MS Word pointing out my errors. Photos are more difficult to upload and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture.

If not- follow me on twitter @mad_megs or instagram-meghamajoe for some images and videos.

Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure

 

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3rd April 2017, Monday (6 days left): Anticipation and wishful thinking

I accompanied Leo and Michele to Manjung. Michele wanted to revisit the hospital and I wanted to exchange some currency in lieu of my upcoming trip to India. Leo and I then went to Sitiawan so i could help him get to the shop where we had found our rain boots. And when we couldn’t find his size, we needed to look around a bit till we found them. The rainy spell seems like it is in no mood to stop and boots also protect against leeches who seem to love Leo, so we were glad we got something done.

We reached checkpoint 2 for the afternoon shift at around 1:10 to see Lea sitting by herself. The macaques weren’t around…neither was Anna. Turns out Anna and Lea had become separated about an hour ago. Not before they saw a snake in the forest which refused to budge. They had briefly been able to contact each other via walkie-talkie but the reception was terrible. Luckily, unlike when Vino was lost, Lea had a working GPS and had with some diffculty and another snake encounter, managed to get to checkpoint 2. Anna and us were still under forced radio silence. Lea’s track showed us that Anna and AMY were close to getting out onto the main road near checkpoint 3. This meant they were either close to getting out or already in ‘THE SWAMP’. I was really hoping I didn’t have to go to ‘THE SWAMP’ in my last week but AMY had other plans I guess. When we got to checkpoint 3 we could at least hear Anna better. Leo and I reached her co-ordinates and I asked her the dreaded question I really didn’t want to know the answer to. “Do you think they will cross the road and go into the swamp?”. And she tried her level best to be honest without deflating my spirit. “Sometimes they just turn a shap left and get out from there if you are lucky…really lucky, otherwise..”. I closed my ears. I didn’t want to hear the words said out loud. We bid her adieu and began our shift.

We completed the id-check because Lea had the tablet. Anakin was missing (Anna informed us later that he’d had an injury on his nose. Anna had witnessed Oliver, the beta chasing him and Goldie on separate occassions when they were mating. Maybe Anakin got it pretty bad from Oliver one time). We moved a bit so we weren’t with the males. Goldie’s swell was still on the rise. She seems to be the only one swelling as of now which meant she was quite popular. Norbert puckered at her but she ignored him. They were at the forest edge and Norbert suddenly jumped across the small moat of water and onto the road. And then…he just sat there staring at Phoenix who was on the electric wire. ON THE OTHER SIDE. I really hoped it was just Phoenix and some other males who were on the other side but feeding from the palms on the edge of ‘THE SWAMP’. Most of the females we were sure were still on our side. “Good girls, stay here with the juveniles”. My theory is that one strategy they use to decide which way to go is to contact call and see where most voices come from- and then head in that direction. This excess of females on our side gave me hope. Atleast until 2 minutes later when Goldie crossed over. Norbert was still in the middle of the road and only the rumble of a humongous truck roused him from his deep thought…enough to nudge him over to the edge…of ‘THE SWAMP’. By this point I had steeled myself to get ready for some epic betam and rattan spine fighting and to get drenched pants and soggy feet. Leo and I marvelled at our timing- he had shiny new rain-boots, just in time to enter ‘THE SWAMP’.

The one good thing was that we could see and I could point out each individual and their specific traits to Leo as they crossed the road, mostly on foot into ‘THE SWAMP’ side. Though we were still at the edge, most individuals had already climbed up and abandoned their terrestrialialty for arboreal means of travel. We walked into some mucky bits and I had already begun being super-cautious of dangling spines of death- the rattans. We kicked some bertam and stamped over a tangle of dried shrubbery- with spines obviously. Weirdly, I noticed that AMY still hadn’t begun going into the swampy bits of ‘THE SWAMP’ yet. They were travelling paralelly to the main road and TOWARDS checkpoint 4, which I thought was VOLDEMORT territory and unusual for AMY. But hey, as long as we weren’t super deep in the mangrove, there was hope that they would get out and not go in. We watched Febe get groomed, Mina slinking about and Tiga puckered at us. We kept going.

After a while, most individuals were up in the trees, making them difficult to identify and the few juveniles splashin about in the water had we fur making them also difficult to identify. Luckily we knew it was Dani, Charli and Curli. We watched them for a bit and finally found a place to sit down. It was becoming more swampy now. We realised that we couldn’t hear females anymore and panicked for about a minute but I remembered Anna’s adage and promise “we never lose them in ‘THE SWAMP’. I hope it applied to where we were and followed the 3 juvies we did have. We were reunited with the core of AMY soon enough. The rest of the time was comparitively boring-proof that we were technically NOT in ‘THE SWAMP’. We moved on to observing the rattan fruits and their patterns, writing letters in water with a stick and talking about the system of arranged marriages and the possible reasons for its existence in Indian society (Lea and I had started this discussion yesterday and she was flabbergasted enough to tell Leo who had follow up questions). We then moved on to superhero cartoons and movies and Dr. Who before it was 6:00 and we hadn’t moved in quite some time. The GPS told us what we knew. We were quie close to checkpoint 4 and AMY had never slept here in recent history. But I guess there’s a first time for everything. We stayed till 6:55 just to ensure they wouldn’t move. It was a different terrain, there was muck, mangrove plants but also huge boulders. We came back and informed Anna who too was surprised at the location for today’s events. Leo missed his chance to see the actual ‘SWAMP’ but I told him he mustn’t despair. He’ll have his chance.

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4th April 2017, Tuesday (4 working days to go): Expected

Couldn’t deny strong feeling that what was left undone yesterday would occur today. I was glad I wasn’t doing the morning shift alone. Lea and I drove directly to the access point near yesterday’s sleeping site. We were there by 7:25 but unfortunately today of all days was bright and sunny and it was pretty obvious to us that AMY had moved. They were gone without a trace and no one was more disappointed than I. All we could hear was the loud swoosh and flapping of the wings of hornbills and their cacophony of calls which in different circumstances would have been amazing (okay…more amazing). Searching for AMY is frustrating and physically and mentally taxing as you might know if you have read the multiple entries from all the times we have lost AMY. We decided that we would have to start the search at checkpoint 3 and might as well go with the bike and park it there. Enroute when we saw them, or some pig-tails. At first we thought it was VOLDEMORT as the individuals seemed to be running away from us. But they were calm after a while, the bike’s noise had perturbed them. And guess where they ran to- the official trail leading up to THE SWAMP. I had anticipated this for hours now and had my big machete ready for some spiny plant sap.

We entered the swampy bits sooner than I remembered having entered the last time. AMY was always around, hidden by the tangled mess of overgrown rattan and bertam palms, and classic mangrove pneumatophores stuck out for air in the murky water we waded through with difficulty. I had already begun swinging the machete with all my might when I realised we were in the middle of THE SWAMP already. A place where there doesn’t even exist a trail according to the GPS. Probably because there is no way you can avoid the water. I was contemplating my next step when the choice was made easier for me as my foot sank and got stuck in mud. So much for navigating so that my legs were dry. Who was I kidding. My boots, both of them were filled with water soon enough and this made it difficult to lit my feeet to stomp on the bertam barks to clear a path. I was just about to be sick of it when I saw something sticking out. This time it was not a water monitor lizard (true story) but a machete sticking out of the mud. I went to retrieve it and almost fell over and lost MY machete but no harm no foul. This was the second machete (though a bit more rusty) lost by those before me, that I had retrieved . This meant both Lea and I could hack some vines and palm stems like there was no tomorrow. In after what seemed like an eternity but was probably a distance of hardly 20-30 metres, we came to an opening. We could actually SEE more individuals now. I recognised this place. It was the little island of non-swamp inside THE SWAMP. The monkeys did seem to prefer this area and so did we. We actually finally sat down on a dry-ish, non-spiny tree bark and I could finally empty my boot yet again and wring my socks and hang them to dry for a bit. The macaques seemed more relaxed. Norbert was cleaning his paws and scratching himself while Febe groomed Felicia. We saw that Pippi had begun to swell again and Goldie’s swell was larger though not large enough to have Norbert follow her everywhere. The juveniles played quite close to us and Tiga tried to pucker and intimidate us. It was cute!

After about 40 minutes we began moving but not in the direction I hoped they would go. They seemed to be turning back albeit using another route which somehow involved less water and spiny palms so we didn’t exactly complain. At around 11:30 we reached a spot I liked a lot. It’s main feature was a gigantic fallen tree we formed a bridge over a swampy bit. It was frequented by long-tails too andled to beautiful inter-specific grooming and play with the pig-tails. Plus, it was open and less-spiny though surrounded on all sides by spiny plants and muck. Though we had no visual confirmation of their location anymore, I knew they were on the other side of that gigantic fallen tree. I was right. Febe foraged quite close to us and I was again relieved to see Emma. Casimodo slept in a branch diagonally above us while Pie, Lori and Pryde played behind us as we sat down and I emptied my boot again, this time to empty water and remove spines before they got lodged deeper into my foot. We talked about various topics, studies, family, important life decisions and anxiety about making the ‘right’ choices etc.AMY seemed to be in no mood to move anytime soon. We were pretty close to getting out of THE SWAMP but it was 1 already and we still hadn’t moved much. And then Anna’s voice crackled through…barely. While we tried to talk AMY decided to suddenly disappear without warning. Finally we heard a small sound and I relayed our co-ordinates to Anna. She got there really fast. Turns out WE were indeed quite close to the edge of THE SWAMP and not through swampy bits. Lea and I were more than happy to hand over the responsibility of AMY to Anna. We hoped for her sake that AMY was finally ready to leave THE SWAMP and head out (spoler alert- they did) and never come back ever again (probably overreaching here). We got back without incident and I slept my exhaustion off as best I could.

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5th April 2017, Wednesday (3 days to go): Slippery

I panicked and got up this morning when I heard the sound of rain pattering down hard on our roof. Luckily, it was only 3 am but this also meant the road was going to be more muddy and the forest too. Anna went to attend to the rat traps (we take out any left over oil-palm fruits in the mroning so the monkeys don’t take them and manhandle the traps they associate with easy food source). I had Anna’s instructions and the co-ordinates of the sleeping site. I had been warned that this was the place where AMY had often been lost because they tended to move quickly, often into checkpoint 3 if not THE SWAMP. It had happened the first time I went to THE SWAMP with Anna though I was hoping today was different because they are usually slow to start the day when it has rained. I blundered through the bushes and fell down twice in mud when attempting to climb up the predictably slippery hill. I finally got to the sleeping site and panicked before I heard two females. They were to my left somewhere and higher up. Anna was on her way up. Her GPS had lost satellite reception but obviously she reached my location with ease and without so breaking a sweat. Badassery at its finest right there and we must all aspire to be like that (apparently it takes more than the number of days I’ve been here).

We were just cutting and stomping through the bertam to get closer to the sounds when the rain began. At first I was so busy hacking away that I thought it was just the sound of crackling palm stems and the wind. We were actually protect by the tangled mess that was this thicket of bertam so we decided to take cover under it. We stayed there till 9 when the rain finally let up. The sound, just one female now seemed distant and we clambered to catch up. I had already found 6 leeches on me by this point and was glad to be on the move again. Though to where was the question. Even Anna was flummoxed. We decided to first go up and then down. Turns out going up was harder than we thought. After I broke through yet another ‘bertam-barrier’ we were facing a giant rock. We went all the way around it and reached the top, a place I did not recognise. AMY was not there. Second rain happened and we stayed for a bit before going down (mostly sliding and slippin on my part) to checkpoint 3. We were on our way to checkpoint 2.5 when we heard the gnarly kind of lost call I have heard both pig-tails and long-tails make. It was coming from ‘THE SWAMP’. Not again, I thought as we heard for more clues and decided to go in. We soon heard the male ‘trrr-trrr-trrr-hugh-hugh-hugh’ sound made by large males, both pig-tail and long-tail though. We stayed till we saw that there were a lot of long-tails so it was hopefully not AMY making the noises. It began to drizzle as we got out of THE SWAMP.

We walked to checkpoint 2 and were heading to the ‘clearing’ when we saw them. They had probably just climbed downhill and been at the plantation the whole time while we had spent close to 3 hours looking for them. Yep. it was 10:45 when we “Found” AMY. I immediately began to start doing the id check. Except most of them were still wet and in the trees making my job very hard. I had spotted Emily and Anna began a focal on her while I marvelled at a hornbill flying past repeatedly to feed its partner and chicks at a tree hole in my line of sight. This occupied me for a while till all the individuals came trickling back onto the plantation. And soon enough AMY was on the move. The sun was shining bright and soon it would get really hot. We reached deeper in the plantation. I saw Goldie eating a small rat, pulling on its innards with all her might. Would help to have canines like Norbert’s but teeth won’t stop my girl. I stalked her for a bit and collected her faeces. I had spotted Dani and Charli playing earlier and called Anna so she could focal Dani. I then walked over and hung out with Scarlet, Pamkin, Schatz and Goldie. Goldie had something in her mouth. Dark with its legs dangling out. Bent legs. And then she pulled it out momentarily just so I could confirm my suspicions. A frog of course (Got all Blues Clues there for a minute huh?). It was 12:30 when they crossed over the second moat into the next section of the plantation. I did another scan at 12:40 and bided my time till Michele arrived after her period of recuperation. I got back and took a nap because the heat got too much to bear and then got up to type this (I’m prompt with my entries now).

Primate Diaries: 10 working dayss to go

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia. Since, I don’t have great internet connection, each blog post will be an ccount of 3 days. I will try to explain biology jargon and/or provide links for them. But I’m pressed for time as internet is precious and I use Starbucks’ wifi (shoutout to Starbucks for all the caffeine). Excuse the atrocious spelling and grammar. I’m using a tablet and I miss MS Word pointing out my errors. Photos are more difficult to upload and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture.

If not- follow me on twitter @mad_megs or instagram-meghamajoe for some images and videos.

Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure

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Author’s second note: So I have to be honest. I think I confused the dates and events in my last post. I had become slack and wasn’t recapitulating the events as soon as I had come back home. So what I wrote for the 29th actually happened on the 30th and what I wrote for the 28th, happened on 29th. I will have to resolve the mystery of what the hell happened on the 28th and why I didn’t write about it. So since you have already read what happened- here goes….

 

30th March 2017: 10 more days of field-work
31st March 2017, Friday (9 days left): the hills have rocks

Leo and I climbed up the hill at checkpoint 2 according to Lea’s instructions in order to relieve her and MIchele from AMY-duty. When we got close to the co-ordinates, I wondered aloud if AMY and they had moved. I couldn’t hear any monkeys. But Lea called out to us. There were sitting on a rocky outcrop. “Where are the monkeys. Still in trees?” I asked. “Oh! Didn’t you see the messages? Anna is coming to get us” Lea said. And then I glanced over at Michele for an explanation and my heart stopped. “Holy shit Michele, you are bleeding” I said to the dazed and obviously in pain Michele. Leo and I had missed all the messaging. Michele and Lea were following the monkeys who decided to disappear behind the huge wall of rocks. Since Michele was not sure of another route to take in order to meet them higher up, she and Lea had decided to undertake the risky climb. Michele had climbed first and held out her hand for Lea out without a firm footing, she had taken a bad fall. She had a gash on her shoulder and there was blood under her nose and on her chin. Anna had her day off so was luckily available. She was coming by car and would take Michele to the hospital. The usually perky Michele was quiet and exhausted. They had lost the group of course and THAT is what worried Michele despite her close call.

Leo and I mollified Michele and Lea and assured them that AMY can’t have gone far. They had told us that they had only lost them about 45 minutes ago. We bid them safe trip and decide to take the alternate on-rocky route I knew, to meet AMY somewhere higher up on the hill. So we kept climbing. WE were exhausted in the first 10 minutes. It was humid and even though there weren’t too many slippery rocks, the bertam and rattan spines were a hassle enough. I knew we were nearing the point where the bertam lumps grew so thik and intertwined, it would be impossible to get through. This is close to where I had lost them once. Anna had told me that they usually don’t go an higher. So I decided to trust her judgement and wait for 10 minutes (mostly to catch my breath). We climbed back down and decided to split up to search. Michele and Lea had told us that AMY hadn’t gone out to the plantation and would have to do so eventually. So we hoped they were right.

Like they had described, there was quite some actvity from the plantation workers today and the plantation was abuzz with harvesting and hauling of fruit onto trucks and tractors. Not ideal. At first I asked Leo to stay in the clearing while I stayed at checkpoint 2.5. These were the closest exit points if AMY took the routes I thought they might take. After an hour though, I decided to expand my search and walked to checkpoint 3, while instructing Leo to go to checkpoint 2. I had just reached checkpoint 3 when Leo’s voice crackled through the walkie-talkie. He had found AMY at

 

Author’s second note: So I have to be honest. I think I confused the dates and events in my last post. I had become slack and wasn’t recapitulating the events as soon as I had come back home. So what I wrote for the 29th actually happened on the 30th and what I wrote for the 28th, happened on 29th. I will have to resolve the mystery of what the hell happened on the 28th and why I didn’t write about it. So since you have already read what happened- here goes….

30th March 2017: 10 more days of field-work
31st March 2017, Friday (9 days left): the hills have rocks
Leo and I climbed up the hill at checkpoint 2 according to Lea’s instructions in order to relieve her and MIchele from AMY-duty. When we got close to the co-ordinates, I wondered aloud if AMY and they had moved. I couldn’t hear any monkeys. But Lea called out to us. There were sitting on a rocky outcrop. “Where are the monkeys. Still in trees?” I asked. “Oh! Didn’t you see the messages? Anna is coming to get us” Lea said. And then I glanced over at Michele for an explanation and my heart stopped. “Holy shit Michele, you are bleeding” I said to the dazed and obviously in pain Michele. Leo and I had missed all the messaging. Michele and Lea were following the monkeys who decided to disappear behind the huge wall of rocks. Since Michele was not sure of another route to take in order to meet them higher up, she and Lea had decided to undertake the risky climb. Michele had climbed first and held out her hand for Lea out without a firm footing, she had taken a bad fall. She had a gash on her shoulder and there was blood under her nose and on her chin. Anna had her day off so was luckily available. She was coming by car and would take Michele to the hospital. The usually perky Michele was quiet and exhausted. They had lost the group of course and THAT is what worried Michele despite her close call.

Leo and I mollified Michele and Lea and assured them that AMY can’t have gone far. They had told us that they had only lost them about 45 minutes ago. We bid them safe trip and decide to take the alternate on-rocky route I knew, to meet AMY somewhere higher up on the hill. So we kept climbing. WE were exhausted in the first 10 minutes. It was humid and even though there weren’t too many slippery rocks, the bertam and rattan spines were a hassle enough. I knew we were nearing the point where the bertam lumps grew so thik and intertwined, it would be impossible to get through. This is close to where I had lost them once. Anna had told me that they usually don’t go an higher. So I decided to trust her judgement and wait for 10 minutes (mostly to catch my breath). We climbed back down and decided to split up to search. Michele and Lea had told us that AMY hadn’t gone out to the plantation and would have to do so eventually. So we hoped they were right.

Like they had described, there was quite some actvity from the plantation workers today and the plantation was abuzz with harvesting and hauling of fruit onto trucks and tractors. Not ideal. At first I asked Leo to stay in the clearing while I stayed at checkpoint 2.5. These were the closest exit pointsif AMY took the routes I thought they might take. After an hour though, I decided to expand my search and walked to checkpoint 3, while instructing Leo to go to checkpoint 2. I had just reached checkpoint 3 when Leo’s voice crackled through the walkie-talkie. He had found AMY at checkpoint 2. I hastily walked to checkpoint 2. Just in time for AMY to begin going into the forest. HAD THEY BEEN IN THE PLANTATION THE WHOLE TIME we had spent climbing up? Well they had cheek-pouches full of oil palm fruits hat said so. It was about 3:30 and we were glad we had found them. They were all just hanging about at the forest edge like they do after a plantation visit.Juvenles were playing, individuals were napping or grooming and this tranquility was a jarring contrast to what had happened to the previous shift’s humans. Leo and I spent some time playing “who’s that?”. It’s the best way for him to recap and learn the individuals names and physical and/or behavioural traits. Scarlet peeked at us from behind a stalk of bertam fruit and flower while I pointed out Goldie and Gollum, Schatz and Tiga, and the pregnant Malicia (She hangs around with Scarlet (who is pregnant too) and is less shy, and usually at the group’s centre). AMY was climbing up quite quickly and we were fortunately keeping up. They reached a clearing which immediately led to a clump of bertam. They spent time there while I figured where they would go next. They did say in the bertam thickets for quite some time while Leo and I finally sat down after having kicked and cut through a large number of bertam.

We would barely be sitting for 5 minutes before AMY decided to move again. Also, I was too paranoid to let them out of my sight. We owed it to Michele and Lea to not lose AMY. Before we knew it, it was already 5:15. We had reached the hill nea the logging road which was the only one split by an actual babbling brook. The sky was getting cloudy and I was confused which side of the ‘river’ AMY would sleep on. I remembered that Michele and I had found a rusted old Machete at one spot on the way to the hill on our left. I got it down from the crevice I remembered it was in. we realised that most of the monkeys had definitely crossed to the other side of the river but since we were still not sure, we decided to make ourselves comfortable on large rocks on the river. We could hear faint ‘sleeping-time’ hmmmm and hoos. But we were still a bit paranoid so we decided to stay there and talk about sports and martial arts and dance styles while waiting for AMY to make a decision on their sleeping arrangements. Their whole trail even before they had been ‘lost’ was zig-zaggy and chaotic. We waited till 6:40 before we left AMY to sleep tight. As planned (prior to Michele’s accident), Anna and her had brought the surprise birthday cake for Leo. Michele is fine and Anna decided that she shouldn’t be going to the forest for at least the next couple of days. We ended the day on a choccolate cake-y note and were glad for it.

1st April, Saturday (8 days to go): Snails

Lea and I surprised AMY wit our loud bike noise when we arrived at checkpoint 2. Anna and Leo informed us that they had been in the plantataion since 9 today so they would have probably gone into the forest anyway. Anna, with a mischieveous glint in her eye warned me “They have all this energy now, they were quite boring in the morning. They might need to make up for it”. Oh great I thought. This will be fun! Lea and I held our breaths and went into the forest, following Pamkin. Phoenix and Anakin were sleeping on branches close to each other while Felicia groomed Febe and Scarlet groomed Tiga. Everything was peaceful….for now.

It was almost an hour before they began to move, heading in the direction of checkpoint 1. We had had an okay time so far. They had climbed a bit but it was still close enough to the plantation for us to hope they would go back. Stranger things have happened! Anyway, for now we were waiting again. Most individuals had climbed up trees. Pamkin was grooming Norbert a short distance away until Goldie came and she ran up a tree as well. Lea and I sat down and discussed our cultures, roles of women and expectations from them while we waited for AMY to make a move. They did move but at a pace so slow, I thought I could hear my hair growing. And we couldn’t even get any interesting behavioural data as all of them were up in trees. They climbed a bit further till they reached a thicket of Bertam. Though on a slope and filled with spines, we hoped this meant they would come off the trees to feed. But it was just some juveniles here and there sparsely distributed. We sat down again, precariously I might add- in a spot which gave us a view of Putih, Puck and Pumeluff on one side and Norbert, high up on a tree on the other while we also avoided as many spines as possible. It had rained quite heavily this morning and again the weather was starting to seem stormy. Winds were blowing quite fast making it difficult to ascertain if the group was still there (when they are high up in trees and out of sight, we only guess their presence by pig-tail vocalisations which are very low, and rustling of the leaves- the wind makes both hard).

Lea and I moved on to topics of history, society and politics, dreams and aspirations, funny people we met, travelling we had done (she more than me- I realised there’s a difference between moving around a lot and TRAVELLING, maybe one day I’d have done quite a bit of both). It was 4:45 when AMY decided to make a move. The skies were dark and gloomy and we hoped this was their final move- directly to the sleeping site. We still had Goldie and Putih in view. We climbed a bit more till we reached a small clearing on a hill. Definitely not ideal for rain-protection….for us that is. They had enough tall trees with thick canopies to climb and keep dry in. But AMY wasn’t done moving. We followed them further and I realised that we were approaching the topof the small hill at checkpoint 1 which boasts a pretty good view of the rising sun in the morning. This WAS definitely a good place to sleep in and had been done before. My spidey-senses said we were upon the sleeping-site at long last. Emily groomed Emma at a distance while juveniles played and Putih cimbed up a tree to huddle for the night. The sky really looked bad and Lea and I made the decision to leave as soon as possible.

We were on the way back when the rain hit. The crazy rain. It didn’t matter that we were wearing rain jackets. I could hardly see. The rain was bad, there were drops on my already fogged glasses and the mosquito repellant had flown into my eye and they were on fire. The tarred was was slippery and the others were too mucky. But, we persevered and got back safely. It got worse and though we had come back before 7, we couldn’t actually go to the city till 8 pm because of the rain. We spent time at Starbucks, attended pasar malam (night market), had dinner and did the weekly supermarket run. Everything sped up after the slow day we had had in the forest.

 

2nd April 2017, Sunday: 7 days left

Anna had been kind enough to insist I take my day off today, though we had decided on tomorrow. My head has been throbbing everyday since the past 3 days and I have a low-key cold. Just my luck that I feel sick just as I am about to leave. But I needed sleep more than anything to recuperate. And I did. I woke up wonderfully rested, was still the earliest up (of the people, not in the forest). Damn my mornning person-ness. So I played with Vlad and Miezer, enjoyed the sun and a slow breakfast and lay back down in bed. I watched as Leo taught Lea to ride the bike and gave probably unhelpful advice.

Nadine dropped by early in the afternoon and we discussed (final) aspects of the project and settled accounts. In the late afternoon, Michele and I gave Vlad his second bath. This time he dried up to look more adorable than before and I came back to promptly type evrything that happened yesterday.

checkpoint 2. I hastily walked to checkpoint 2. Just in time for AMY to begin going into the forest. HAD THEY BEEN IN THE PLANTATION THE WHOLE TIME we had spent climbing up? Well they had cheek-pouches full of oil palm fruits hat said so. It was about 3:30 and we were glad we had found them. They were all just hanging about at the forest edge like they do after a plantation visit.Juvenles were playing, individuals were napping or grooming and this tranquility was a jarring contrast to what had happened to the previous shift’s humans. Leo and I spent some time playing “who’s that?”. It’s the best way for him to recap and learn the individuals names and physical and/or behavioural traits. Scarlet peeked at us from behind a stalk of bertam fruit and flower while I pointed out Goldie and Gollum, Schatz and Tiga, and the pregnant Malicia (She hangs around with Scarlet (who is pregnant too) and is less shy, and usually at the group’s centre). AMY was climbing up quite quickly and we were fortunately keeping up. They reached a clearing which immediately led to a clump of bertam. They spent time there while I figured where they would go next. They did say in the bertam thickets for quite some time while Leo and I finally sat down after having kicked and cut through a large number of bertam.

 

We would barely be sitting for 5 minutes before AMY decided to move again. Also, I was too paranoid to let them out of my sight. We owed it to Michele and Lea to not lose AMY. Before we knew it, it was already 5:15. We had reached the hill nea the logging road which was the only one split by an actual babbling brook. The sky was getting cloudy and I was confused which side of the ‘river’ AMY would sleep on. I remembered that Michele and I had found a rusted old Machete at one spot on the way to the hill on our left. I got it down from the crevice I remembered it was in. we realised that most of the monkeys had definitely crossed to the other side of the river but since we were still not sure, we decided to make ourselves comfortable on large rocks on the river. We could hear faint ‘sleeping-time’ hmmmm and hoos. But we were still a bit paranoid so we decided to stay there and talk about sports and martial arts and dance styles while waiting for AMY to make a decision on their sleeping arrangements. Their whole trail even before they had been ‘lost’ was zig-zaggy and chaotic. We waited till 6:40 before we left AMY to sleep tight. As planned (prior to Michele’s accident), Anna and her had brought the surprise birthday cake for Leo. Michele is fine and Anna decided that she shouldn’t be going to the forest for at least the next couple of days. We ended the day on a choccolate cake-y note and were glad for it))))

1st April, Saturday (8 days to go): Snails

 

Lea and I surprised AMY wit our loud bike noise when we arrived at checkpoint 2. Anna and Leo informed us that they had been in the plantataion since 9 today so they would have probably gone into the forest anyway. Anna, with a mischieveous glint in her eye warned me “They have all this energy now, they were quite boring in the morning. They might need to make up for it”. Oh great I thought. This will be fun! Lea and I held our breaths and went into the forest, following Pamkin. Phoenix and Anakin were sleeping on branches close to each other while Felicia groomed Febe and Scarlet groomed Tiga. Everything was peaceful….for now.

It was almost an hour before they began to move, heading in the direction of checkpoint 1. We had had an okay time so far. They had climbed a bit but it was still close enough to the plantation for us to hope they would go back. Stranger things have happened! Anyway, for now we were waiting again. Most individuals had climbed up trees. Pamkin was grooming Norbert a short distance away until Goldie came and she ran up a tree as well. Lea and I sat down and discussed our cultures, roles of women and expectations from them while we waited for AMY to make a move. They did move but at a pace so slow, I thought I could hear my hair growing. And we couldn’t even get any interesting behavioural data as all of them were up in trees. They climbed a bit further till they reached a thicket of Bertam. Though on a slope and filled with spines, we hoped this meant they would come off the trees to feed. But it was just some juveniles here and there sparsely distributed. We sat down again, precariously I might add- in a spot which gave us a view of Putih, Puck and Pumeluff on one side and Norbert, high up on a tree on the other while we also avoided as many spines as possible. It had rained quite heavily this morning and again the weather was starting to seem stormy. Winds were blowing quite fast making it difficult to ascertain if the group was still there (when they are high up in trees and out of sight, we only guess their presence by pig-tail vocalisations which are very low, and rustling of the leaves- the wind makes both hard).

Lea and I moved on to topics of history, society and politics, dreams and aspirations, funny people we met, travelling we had done (she more than me- I realised there’s a difference between moving around a lot and TRAVELLING, maybe one day I’d have done quite a bit of both). It was 4:45 when AMY decided to make a move. The skies were dark and gloomy and we hoped this was their final move- directly to the sleeping site. We still had Goldie and Putih in view. We climbed a bit more till we reached a small clearing on a hill. Definitely not ideal for rain-protection….for us that is. They had enough tall trees with thick canopies to climb and keep dry in. But AMY wasn’t done moving. We followed them further and I realised that we were approaching the topof the small hill at checkpoint 1 which boasts a pretty good view of the rising sun in the morning. This WAS definitely a good place to sleep in and had been done before. My spidey-senses said we were upon the sleeping-site at long last. Emily groomed Emma at a distance while juveniles played and Putih cimbed up a tree to huddle for the night. The sky really looked bad and Lea and I made the decision to leave as soon as possible.

We were on the way back when the rain hit. The crazy rain. It didn’t matter that we were wearing rain jackets. I could hardly see. The rain was bad, there were drops on my already fogged glasses and the mosquito repellant had flown into my eye and they were on fire. The tarred was was slippery and the others were too mucky. But, we persevered and got back safely. It got worse and though we had come back before 7, we couldn’t actually go to the city till 8 pm because of the rain. We spent time at Starbucks, attended pasar malam (night market), had dinner and did the weekly supermarket run. Everything sped up after the slow day we had had in the forest.

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2nd April 2017, Sunday: 7 days left
Anna had been kind enough to insist I take my day off today, though we had decided on tomorrow. My head has been throbbing everyday since the past 3 days and I have a low-key cold. Just my luck that I feel sick just as I am about to leave. But I needed sleep more than anything to recuperate. And I did. I woke up wonderfully rested, was still the earliest up (of the people, not in the forest). Damn my mornning person-ness. So I played with Vlad and Miezer, enjoyed the sun and a slow breakfast and lay back down in bed. I watched as Leo taught Lea to ride the bike and gave probably unhelpful advice. Nadine dropped by early in the afternoon and we discussed (final) aspects of the project and settled accounts. In the late afternoon, Michele and I gave Vlad his second bath. This time he dried up to look more adorable than before and I came back to promptly type evrything that happened yesterday.

 

Primate Diaries: leaving, searching and running in circles (Days 72-74)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia. Since, I don’t have great internet connection, each blog post will be an ccount of 3 days. I will try to explain biology jargon and/or provide links for them. But I’m pressed for time as internet is precious and I use Starbucks’ wifi (shoutout to Starbucks for all the caffeine). Excuse the atrocious spelling and grammar. I’m using a tablet and I miss MS Word pointing out my errors. Photos are more difficult to upload and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture.

If not- follow me on twitter @mad_megs or instagram-meghamajoe for some images and videos.

Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure

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27th March 2017, Monday: Parting and meeting

We had a whole list of errands, buying items that Nadine had listed-including extra tubes for the bike wheels and tools. Leo, Vino, Michele and I got to Manjung at around 9:45 hoping to start early. But just because we are used to starting OUR working days at 6:45 doesn’t mean civil society and businesses are. Luckily one Chinese bike repair establishment was open. Vino pointed to the bedazzled Ganesha statue they had. Apparently they keep pink rice flour based things as prasad (snacks/offering) whereas the Indians stick to Laddoos. Luckily it was also near the veterinarian’s clinic. Vladmir/ Vlad, our latest kitten found by Nadine at the beach was not looking too good. He refused to eat or even move a little bit and Anna had decided it was best to take him to the vet.

We dropped Michele at the vet and ran the other errands, finding most things we were looking for. Afterwards, we picked Michele and Vlad up and I babysat him in the car while everyone else went to the mall to do a bit of personal shopping. Leo and I needed to join Anna for the afternoon shift so we decided to get take-away lunch.

We needed to slow down a bit after this chaos as this was also the moment to say goodbye to Vino who left to go back to KL today. She will most probably be joining Nadine’s lab at USM but fieldwork and volunteering with all of us means our moments and adventures together had come to an end. We hugged Vino goodbye. She will be missed. Of course I will stalk her amazing art on Instagram and think of her eveery time I come across creepy Anime. Mimi was first to go and now Vino. It hit me that I leave soon too (too soon?). It’s disconcerting and exciting at the same time.

Leo and I reached Anna and AMY in the plantation at checkpoint 1. I secretly hoped AMY was finished with all the moving this morning and were ready to take it easy. Anna was busy with her focals so I acted as Leo’s guide and taught him some more individuals. We didn’t have to wait too long before AMY began to move. We went inside and I continued to tell Leo about the various individuals and their characteristics, pausing when I thought he would get overwhelmed and confused. He was definitely doing much better than I was considering this was only the 3rd time (not on consecutive days) he was spending time with the individuals. It occured to us after some amount of walking that we were still only at the forest edge. I completed the ID check and Leo and I sat down. Amy wasn’t going anywhere for a while. I pointed Phoenix, the tormentor of Juveniles to Leo. As of now, he was engaged in blissful slumber in a tree in our line of sight. We saw a female approach him and silently groom him. That’s rare. And it didn’t seem to be preceeded by him puckering or succeeded by him mounting. He just lay there and moved his arm up at some point. WHO WAS THIS FEMALE. This was where the plot thickens. It was Goldie, the alpha female. I have never seen them interact. When they do, it is usually Goldie chasing Poenix, just like everyone else chases Phoenix unless swelling lower-ranking females. Anna finished her focal and confirmed that it was indeed Goldie and Phoenix.

AMY was beginning to stir and start moving. We realised that they were moving towards checkoint 2. Anna had begun her focal again and Leo and I stayed behind. We passed by Norbert and Oliver napping away in all their glory. I spotted Emma and we followed her slow movements while she foraged for insects inside a fallen tree’s bark. We were quite close to the plantation and decided that a lot of individuals were probably there. Indeed, AMY had decided to take a second trip to the plantation. It was 4:30 now. I decided to show Leo about our 20 minute scans. We spot 3 males, 3 females and 3 juveniles and type what they are doing and at what stratum of the plantation or forest (ground, tree trunk/bark, canopy/palm tree crown). It is a good way to keep yourself in the group and learn to spot individuals which can otherwise be difficult when they camouflage well and make no noise.

The group stayed in the plantation for close to an hour and began their (hopefully) final scent for the day. Again, luckily for us, they seemed to be in no tearing hurry. We were able to follow them up the hill at checkpoint 2. Leo, it turns out has only been to this area of the forest all the 3 times he has followed AMY. I told him not to worry- AMY would change it up soon enough. We climbed some rocks to get up and reached a point I am familiar with, thanks to it being a usual route and hang-out spot used by AMY. It was 5:40 and Chewbacca, Phoenix and Pamkin had already climbed up some trees near us. Leo and I got to talking about forestry and plants, going on to discuss issues surrounding land management and so on. Anna was still doing a focal on an individualwho had decided to go further up the hill we realised, though it couldn’t be that far. It was 6:45 and Anna was done too. We all got downhill. I’m so familiar with the area now-I didn’t even need to look at the GPS.

We got back and procured the help of some neighbours who had volunteered to fix the repaired bike wheel after seeing us struggling to remove it. So ow, we finally have both bikes functioning and need not take the small car into the forest. All we need now is the forest-worthy Kembara to be fixed.

28th March 2017, Tuesday: Searching for YOU-KNOW-WHO

Leo, Lea and I left with the tw bikes after Michele had returned with one. Anna was still with AMY. She planned to do yet anther full day. We were underway when I felt the drizzle turn into a shower. We had already entered the plantation when it started pouring. We quickly parked the bikes and hunkered down inside the forest at the edge. Anna and AMY too were taking refuge at the forest edge near the clearing. After about 40 minutes, the rain stopped and Lea went to join Anna and AMY. Leo and I were tasked with looking for VOLDEMORT. The rain had reduced my hopes. The macaques, if they can help it-will prefer to be in the forest when it rains.

Nevertheless, this was a great opportunity for Leo to see the frustraing process that is searching for VOLDEMORT- a group that is not as habituated as AMY and whose hang out spots we aren’t as aware of. Plus, searching is a great way to see parts of the forest and plantation you haven’t seen before. Lea had had the privelege f searching for AMY so she had been to all the checkpoints but Leo had only been to 2 and the outskirts of checkpoint 1. So, though I hoped for VOLDEMORT to be a no-show, it would not ALL be in vain. We started with checkpoint 2.5 listening for any movement. Since the rain had just stopped, even the long-tails and squirrels were yet to move about. We walked all the wy to checkpoint 3. I pointed out areas where we normally searched for AMY and acces points to THE SWAMP at checkpoint 3 from some areas. We also had a small discussion about rattans, its spines and their function (torture every living thing was not scientifically acceptable). We then decided to walk al the way to checkpoint 4, where Giovanni had marked the trail when he followed Voldemort. Leo and I had a stimulating conversation about cognition in primates, studies relating to animal behaviour and the concept of flipped zoos (where humans are inside a cage/vehicle/glass enclosure watching the animals roam free).

We were just about to walk back to checkpoint 3 when Leo pointed to a pigtail- a male….large-ish. It was worth a shot, if only to enter the forest from this side and see a new area. And it was different, novel in a “many more Bertam with spines and tangled branches of trees here” kind of way. We did manage to follow the male (who it seemed with time and spines was probably solitary) for some distance before it became almost impossible and the other lost call from a female was a long-tail. So with some difficulty, we came back down. Turns out it was already 4:20 by the time we got out.

I decided that since we had covered most checkpoints and areas, might as well let Leo see and experience the ‘logging road’. We came accross AMY, Anna and Lea at the plantation on the way. Though w were happy to see them, its always a bummer when you see AMY while looking for VOLDEMORT and vice-versa. Leo was curious to know why this was the ‘logging road’ was the only trail that was named. His confusion was cleared as soon as he saw the place. It is the clearest of the trails, with vegetation on both sides but a yellow-brick road like quality to it though one can rest assured that it won’t lead to an Emarald city. We did try to look carefully and kept our ears tuned to any pig-tail sounds but to no avail. At 6 we decided that it was time to head back home. VOLDEMORT has thwarthed me yet again!

29th March 2017, Wednesday: Circles

Lea and I got to ‘the clearing’ at about 1:20 to take over from Anna and Michele. After basic instructions and a bit of confusion as to whether AMY was going into the forest or staying in the plantation, we found them and bid Anna and Michele adieu. In about half an hour we saw most individuals going in. I ensured that we had all the individuals in the group as we went. We weren’t moving very fast and only at he forest edge. It also didn’t help that yet again, most individuals seemed to be in trees. While Leo has been having great luck spotting and seeing individuals at close quarters, Lea hasn’t been as fortunate. But I tried to make the best out of the situation by pointing out the individuals we did see. Norbert, the alpha and my bae is obviously easy to recognise. We spotted Oliver, Casimodo, Phoenix, Anakin (who obviously puckered at us the whole time), Mina, Pamkin, Scarlet, Goldie, Pippi, Jane and Biru. Unfortunately both Jane and Biru’s swells had receeded and they look pretty similar at this stage which is unfortunate. We talked about each individuals and their characteristics and quirks before realising that AMY was moving again, although we soon realised it wasn’t too far.

Since it had rained, the smallish swamp at checkpoint 2 had become more swampy though not as bad as the ones at check-point 1or 3. We were trying to follow any individuals we could keep track of long enough but they all seemed skittish and uneasy. At some point we heard dogs bark and everyone went up even further on the trees they were already on. Emily, just like her mother Emma seemed the least bothered. In fact, she was curious to see us and dropped down like Spider-man, not leaving even when I clapped my hands close to her face, almost losing my balance and falling face first into muck in order to do so. We were saved from doing more because Norbert decided to throw a tantrum right then and sent everyone scurrying. Soon afterwards, the lost calls started.

Just like on Leo’s first day with Vino and me, Goldie seemed to initiate it. Although this time I was sure she had’t lost HER juvenile Gollum. PAmkin was calling, Pippi began. As did Biru and Scarlet though with not as much intensity. At one point everyone made contact calls so loud, followed by male grunts, the curiosity was kiling us. And the annoyance of sitting on a not very comfortable log with any possible view of the monkeys obscured by the canopy and a fallen tangle of dried tree branches that was the epicentre of the calling committee. We were pretty sure that after all this drama was done, AMY would definitely go back out into the plantation considering they were only around 70 metres away. We wondered why AMY was acting weird- a question we probably would not be able to answer. I remembered that Anna and Michele had said that hadn’t moved much in the morning either.

At around 6, the finally came back out. It seemed rainy. We saw that Leo and Anna were here despite our cautions about the bad roads. They needed to set up traps with oil-palm fruits as bait to collect and identify rats (macaques eat rats thus reducing the rats that are a pest on the oil-palm crop, a phenomenon the Macaca Nemestrina Project is trying to scientifically ascertain). At around 6:45, Lea and I realised that the rain was going to hit anytime now and that it meant the macaques weren’t going to move too much. We convinced Anna to leave before the roads got worse and the car couldn’t go at all. I drove the bike through the rain getting slightly wet as the rain splashed when I drove through it, my glasses fogged over and misty. We all got back just in time for the bad rain to begin. The rain which wasn’t too heavy though it did last for close to 3 hours.

29th March 2017, Wesnesday: Pacing and Scurrying

Anna and I were at the plantation in the morning. I was to follow AMY while Anna tied up all the rat traps. She hoped to be done by 9 or so and I hoped I could hold down the fort till then. I went to the sleeping site Lea and I had marked. Nothing. No need to panic…..yet, I thought. They can’t have moved that much. “Although they might have moved when the rain was contiuously pouring for more than an hour….has happened” said my pessimistic side. “This is pointless, abandon the search” said my defeatist side. And I decided that I was going to go forward and investigate. Of course, AMY had stayed although about 50 m away from where we had marked.

They came out into the clearing soon enough but seemed to be taking their own sweet time. I did the ID check, became sad that Franzi wasn’t here anymore though I had seen Jisuaf at the sleeping site. AMY had begun moving deeper inside the plantation at around 9 when Anna’s voice crackled promtly through the walkie-talkie. She hadn’t missed much I told her. I had found Putih for her because I knew she has been despertely trying to do as many focals on her as possible. Just as I was telling her this- I lost Putih. Ah well! I tried said my defeatist side and I agreed. I left Anna to her devices while I folllowed Emma, then Febe and Mina and then saw Casimodo tear up and patiently dig into a tree bark to get to some very juicy looking larvae. I saw Oliver catch and eat a rat. I watched him dismember and devour the creature with revulsion and fascination. Casimodo was also at a little tuffet nearby and guess what, he too had a rat. A small one. I remembered that we were supposed to mark spots where we had encountered rat-eating, on the GPS. I did so, when Anna drew my attention to Norbert eating a large rat near her.

30 minutes later, Oliver was on his 3rd rat and I had collected his faeces for seed analysis (to ascertain if pig-tails are good dispersers of plants via defecation). Anna and I realised that we definitely needed to change the location of our rat traps and shift them deeper into the plantation for this is where most rat-eating seemed to occur. Too bad she had just tied alll the traps around 2 hours ago. We were almost parallel to checkpoint 0 by this time which is quite far from where we had begun. But now AMY was turning back.

By around 12:30 the pig-tails were back at the clearing. It’s weird how fast they move when they want to. They WERE full of energy from all the rats and grasshoppers and oil-palm fruits I guess. I’m glad I wasn’t doing the afternoon shift. Michele got to me sitting at the forest edge watching Scarlet and Goldie on two branches of the same tree. Anna had already begun her ‘forest focal’ and was inside with a juvenile. I have 10 more days left. I wouldn’t mind terribly if they were somewhat like today but I doubt that would happen and if I will actually like it.

Primate Diaries: Days 49-51

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is an account of my experiences with the Macaca Nemestrina Project in Perak, Malaysia. Since, I don’t have great internet connection, each blog post will be an ccount of 3 days. I will try to explain biology jargon and/or provide links for them. But I’m pressed for time as internet is precious and I use Starbucks’ wifi (shoutout to Starbucks for all the caffeine). Excuse the atrocious spelling and grammar. I’m using a tablet and I miss MS Word pointing out my errors. Photos are more difficult to upload and hope that my words are enough to paint a picture.

If not- follow me on twitter @mad_megs or instagram-meghamajoe for some images and videos.

Please read the previous posts for context. Feedback and questions are appreciated. Curiosity drives us. It drove me to this adventure.

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4th March:  Impending
I spent the morning lazing about. It was extremely hot and I was glad it wasn’t me who had to walk all the way to the forest early in the morning (Both bikes were in need of tweaking). Nadine and her husband came by to fix the bikes and it was almost 1 by the time I left but luckily AMY was in the plantation. Michele was nursing her newly formed blisters while Anna was yet again looking for the elusive Putih, who is master of sneaking around with her baby Pumeluff attached to her. I spotted her and yelled for Anna who came running to conduct her focal.

Anna and Michele left and AMY too decided that they had had enough. The thunder sounded threatening and strong winds were blowing. It is the sign of a storm brewing and I would be happier in the forest too when it started to pour. But AMY lingered on, spending time grooming and drinking from puddles in the buffer-zone at the cusp of the plantation and the forest. Norbert sat there, in all his magnificence and made some grunting noises in response to or as a stimulus for the juveniles’ humming. I had my eye on Pippi who is swelling again. Brienne, it turns out is definitely not pregnant and is now hanging about the periphery of the group to solicit some mounting. I followed Febe, through the access point at Checkpoint 2. Inside, it was cosier and I already felt protected from the wind. But soon, the sun was streaming through. False alarm about the rain then. Though the thunder seemed unrelenting and growing louder. AMY hung about for a while before starting to climb up.

Yet again, Casimodo and I had a stand-off. He puckered at me and moved toward me while I decided to stand my ground till he was too close. Waving your arm like I do to get the juveniles when they get too curious is not avstrategy that works. Plus, Casimodo is a pretty big male. Luckily, he got distracted and decided that was more novel than I. We were steadily climbing for what felt like a half-hour. A lot of it was obviously me just being paranoid about losing them and climbing too fast without realising my foot was placed in lose soil. When I did reach flattish land, my view was obscured by all the Bertums. I could only hear the pig-tails yet again ravishing, what Nadine claims is a rather bland snack.

We seemed to be going along the same route Anna and I had climbed the hill up yesterday. But at least we seemed to be going downhil.. Maybe they were going back into the plantation since it didn’t rain after all I thought. I leaned against a tree to rest my weary legs. I had a good view of Pippi puckering at Pie who dutifully came to groom her mother while Lori was in a Bertum clump in my line of sight too. And then I felt a drop, and then another. But it didn’t feel like rain. I could see a pig-tail’s behind and I quickly jumped away. I just got peed on. I had heard this happens and it had almost happened on two-three separate ocassions but….ah well, at least it wasnt a full shower onmy face I thought. But I now had a good view of the perpetrator-of-pee. It was my new nemesis Tiga, the soon-to-be sub-adult who has been skittish and puckering a lot at me off-late. However, I saw what he was doing. He was actually scooping out and drinking the water that had filled up in a stump on the tree. SO it was water, that explains why it wasn’t warm and continuous. Close call but I’m guessing my initiation into getting peed on will happen one day or another.

I didn’t have to wait long before AMY began moving once again. This time in the direction of checkpoint 2, I hoped. I was not ready to deal with the swamp at checkpoint 1 by myself. The thunder was louder and the wind was strong enough to shake the trees inside the forest as well. Plus, this was the same hill where Michele and I had become confused thanks to the longtails, yesterday and I knew they regularly hang out there. And right I was. AMY was currently sprinkled with long-tails. Tiga bullied Curli into giving up his nice tree-bark with a lot of potential insects while a juvenile I couldn’t identify, played with a juvenile long-tail….for quite a while. And the long-tail, after giving an alarm-call and realising that his playmate and playmates troop didn’t care, realised that I probably wasn’t a threat and guessed that I probably couldn’t climb up a tree anyway. They mock-bit each othe, swiped at each others tails and swung aboutwhile holding the other in a tight embrace. It was adorable. I moved a bit ahead thinking that soon we would be in the plantation. We were so close after all.

But I waited and waited. Pippi groomed Putih for a solid half hour and the huveniles were playing and calling. Putig groomed a female for quite some time and I realised it was Pamkin, who we recently hypothesised is probably one of the three highest ranking sisters’ trio, and quite aggressive too. Norbert had returned again and fulfilled his seemingly minimal and obligatory duty of grunting in return to all juveniles’ hmmms and getting a hoooo…back. Maybe that’s how they also keep check to see if all the individuals are present, though the males don’t usually care I would think (Males leave the group, females form the core permanent group- google Female Philopatry in primates). I was really getting worried about being rained on. Luckily I had reception and was able to tell people at camp to come pick me up slightly early.

It was surprising how close they were too the plantation, but how difficult this place was to access, thanks to the water I would have to cross, and the horribly tangled mass of lianas interspersed with clumps of Bertum. I finally got out though. Anna had just arrived and eveerything looked bone-dry. I felt silly but Anna was understanding. She said she wouldn’t have taken the risk either. Plus, AMY hadn’t moved for an hour and had gone through the sleep-time ritual already so we felt more confident. We went to the city, earlier than we had ever gone before. It was weird! Anna ‘s standing fan had breathed its last, we attribute it to one most terrifying thunder strike the other day. I also needed to run some errands before my next trip to Indonesia so we spent a precious couple of hours in the city and got back at a somewhat decent hour. Ok I’m lying, it was 12 when we reached home. But, we tried.

5th March 2017, Sunday : The sun’ll come out tomorrow

I woke up to the sound of thunder, but the air smelt dry. Anna and I headed out, me hoping that AMY had indeed stayed at what I had marked as the sleeping site, considering how early they had seemed to be done for the day yesterday. We were on the tarred road when we felt the drops turning into an ominous drizzle. “Do you want to stop so we can put our rain jackets on?” Anna asked. “I don’t care as much, but the tablet in my bag needs to be protected” I replied. We quickly covered all the equipment and protected ourselves as best we could. But when the real rain hit, it didn’t matter. It was pouring so hard and the wind was blowing. It was still dark and the rain meant Anna couldn’t see where we were going “We can get to Nadine’s house, I think it’s not too far” Anna suggested. Atleast we’ll know where it is because there will be light. Since their house is built in the traditional Malay architecture, it’s on the modern version of stilts, so there’s the space underneath that doubles up as garage, workspace and bike shed. We got there at around 6:55, already wet thanks to the storm. We sat at the kids’ arts and crafts table and talked to while away our time. In order to allay any fears of thieves that Nadine’s family might have, we sent her a message explaining that we were under their house perse and not home invaders.

Half an hour later, the rain seemed in no hurry to stop or slow down. Nadine was up and offered us some warm tea and coconut bread. Might as well we thought. And then she warmed our damp spirits when she asked us “Did you see the cats, the babies I mean?”. And then she brought them out. 5 little itsy-bitsy kittens in our laps and we were almost glad for the rain. Their mother, a silky ginger cat was hanging around with another female ginger who is also pregnant. “So many kittens”, I breathed into the ear of one who was trying to snooze on my thigh while her 2 siblings clambered over her to investigate their surroundings. Anna and I reluctantly got up to leave. the rain had definitely slowed down to a drizzle and we anticipated the monkeys to have moved. When it rains for too long, even if it’s heavy, AMY moves sometimes, as if they get bored of waiting or they look for better shelter. We reached the plantation at 9:15 am, expecting to have to look for AMY, a laborious task but I thought might as well try the sleeping site first. Yes it took time to get there. It’s a weird place though quite close to the plantation. We were pleasantly surprised to find that AMY was still there, waiting for us. “Aww, you guys”, I exclaimed as if hoping for some response from them. But it was Anna who spoke- “They are going to the plantation, we have to go there really fast, we will lose them otherwise”. What, to me it seemed like they would take some time, but Anna seems to correctly guess a lot of things about AMY so we got out as quickly as possibly. They were nowehere near the buffer zone. Anna ran further into the plantation while I wondered why AMY would so deep into the plantation so fast. But there they were, moving from one plot to another. We ran crossing the moat with some difficulty. Soon enough we were amongst them.

Anna began her focal, again starting with Putih and her babay Pummeluff, while she could and I started with the ID check and entering ad-libitum events. These behaviurs, usually interactions between individuals-aggressive, affiliative or sexual help us form ethograms and matrices to establish the heirarchy and social relations. After watching Phoenix chase the little independent infant Reggie, I wandered towards Scarlet. She is my favourite female, always calm, mostly grooming her juveniles Tiga and Schatz. Off-late, Tiga-probably on the cusp of sub-adulthood is acting like a human teenage brat and starting to be skittish and invade our personal space. Scarlet, thanks to her pregnancy which is great, is unfortunately also becoming very squirmish though Anna swears it wasn’t like this when she was pregnant with Schatz. And thus, when I went close to her to see if I could get Phoenix’s faeces, she alarm called and screamed till I went away. A little deflated, I decided to hang out with the swelling females, who become a little more bold- you have to be to get non-alphas to mount you without running helter-skelter. A lesson Pippi and Jane still haven’t learned, they run too quickly away after a male mounts them sometimes.

I came across Emma and at a good time too- Anna was looking for her to do a focal. She suggested I look out for Anakin, so i did and then she said I should look out for and keep an eye on Mina-next on the focalling list. We didn’t have to try too hard. Anakin was following Mina, who is sweling again. He puckered and mounted, puckered and mounted again and then they separated. So I foloowed Mina, watched her sexual trysts and recorded them. Passed both Norbert and Oliver on the ground, looking up expectantly at other individuals foraging. There are I think many reasons the big males, who ususallly tend to be higher ranking, don’t climb trees often:
1) They have a great view of the females swells from underneath and can also spot any sneaking around if they decide to stick to and guard one female.
2) They are usually too big and it might be difficult to get their humongous lumbering forms up and across most trees plus their callosites seems pretty small in proportion and the handicap (google Zahavi’s handicap principle) that is the ball-sack is not a great thing to have to sit upon.
3) Most importantly and probably to put in anthropomorphic terms- they sustain themselves by mooching off the food that fell down when others- females, smaller males and juveniles dropped things, usually while stepping on a weak part of the bark, they also can use their superiority and physical strength to snatch food.

Just as I was thinking this, I saw evidence of the last point. Phoenix was looking for insects or other creatures, moving around prying the bark open when we heard a squeal. A rat had fallen down. Before anyone could react, Oliver had already expertly gripped the rat and beheaded it with his canine. I forgot about Mina, and so did he – he was just puckering at her a moment ago (refer to point 1). This is yet another thing we put in ad-libitum. It helps establish whether the pig-tails are actually controlling the population of rodents, a big pest of oil-palm plantations, rather than the pig-tails that are considered to be. Anna decided that she would rather do a focal on Oliver- she needed to do him next anyway. We saw him expertly turn the rat inside out to get to the flesh without bothering with the fur and skin. After being grossed out by the goriness, I decided to get back to Mina, and let Anna deal with Oliver. I realised we had been in the plantation for quite a while. I didn’t want to leave Anna alone- especially because we feared another rain- the sun still wasn’t out. But I was exhausted somehow and Anna said she’d manage. Additionally, she wanted me to leave asap so i didn’t have to drive in the rain, if it did rain. So I wished her all the best, hoped for good weather and non-swampy terrain. Not that it mattered, the moat crossing today had already filled her boot with water. She is looking forward to her day off tomorrow to hopefully dry her things.

6th March 2017, Monday: It’s lonely at the top

We were still functioning with one bike which means, since Anna had her day off I had to go with Michele in the morning, just to bring the bike back, so I could go in the afternoon shift. The logistics management is a skill I wish was something I could formally put in my CV. I came back, almost got creeped out by a turkey, near the house that didn’t seem to know it’s boundaries (Check out my instagram for proof). You’d know if you know how weird Geese, swan and even chickens can get sometimes- especially if they decide to mob and/or chase you. Had a good breakfast and read a book. The weather seemed okay, much better than yesterday.

I reached the reserve at around 1:30, AMY had just reached the plantation. They were still hanging out in the buffer zone. We swiftly made the exchange of GPSs, i collected the tablet and Michele was on her way, I watched as some Scarlet and Schatz foraged a little distance away from me. I sat down to record any interesting exchange. I didn’t have to wait long. I heard a tussle rght above me. Pippi, who is starting to swell was minding her own business around 5 m away from Norbert (Who was on the tree today), was suddenly viciously chaed and bitten by Goldie-the female we believe is the alpha. Pippi almost fell off the last bit off the palm and ran to another tree nearby. Goldie calmly started grooming Norbert, weird as her swell is definitely going down. But we have seen even Pamkin and Scarlet grooming him, when they are not swelling, and he lets them- probably has something to do with their social standing (They are possibly the highest ranking females-probably sisters). A while later, Norbert had moved to the other tree and so Pippi got chased by Goldie again. Poor thing can’t catch a break.

Surprisingly, AMY decided that they had had enough and were goig back into the forest, after spending only an hour in the border of the plantation. Well, AMY is full of surprises. Better not question it- no time to anyway, considering how fast they were moving. Not even hanging out at the forest border like they usually do after their plantation visits. I waited in the plantation for a bit and I’m glad I did. I got to witness Mina get mounted by Phoenix twice. I turned around to see if Putih had finally gone in and when I turned back- holy hell- PHOENIX WAS GROOMING MINA. A male grooming a female is a rare occurance and I was sad I couldn’t record it on my phone. Best ad-libitum recording ever- although probably an outlier of male to female affiliative acts. I finally reached inside, watched as the last of the males came trickling in. Casimodo and Anakin sat almost huddled together as they each got presented to by Pippi and Mina, neither of whose offers they seemed to want to take. I watched as Febe followed Putih in the hopes to groom her only to have those hopes dashed when mina lunged her into running away and up a tree near me. We were quickly climbing up now. I was a little surprised at the steady movements with little time for breaks but Anna said they did the same yesterday after their day at the plantation.

We were reaching a part of the hill I detested all the spiny Bertums, clumps of them as far as the eye can see. Mostly because the eyes can’t see too far BECAUSE of the Bertums. I remembered that I had forgotten to take the Machete from Michele. Too late now! Well, AMY was still moving and it was becoming more difficult to see them. And unlike the last time, they didn’t seem too interested in feeding on Bertum fruits. They climbed up and down, up and down. I tried to keep up and was successful except for a few scares here and there. Once, i was with just a juvenile in sight whigh was Lori as I figured out and it was just Lori, Pippi and Pie. not a good combo as they are closely related, and Pippi seems to get lost quite a bit. Her lost call wsn’t filling me with confidence. But then the others came over and I was relieved.

We were heading to an area I wasn’t familiar with and I reckoned we were quite high up already. I thought we might be near the vantage point that boasts great views of the ocean when the sun sets- according to Anna. Well, maybe I’d finally get to see this amazing sunset over the ocean. We were climbing quite high now and the Bertums were making things really difficult. It was like in the swamp-I could only hear the pig-tails from time to time. And then we reached a place with less of an incline and fewer Bertums. Finally I can sit and drink some water I thought. Having a snack was out of the question at the rate AMY was moving. And then I realised why there were fewer Bertum- It was filled with huge boulders and mossy rocks. I saw Mina and Brienne disappear to a much clearer are to my left. All the males were hanging out to my right and juveniles had already climbed up via the spiny bertums that were around. I went left after where I’s seen Brienne and Mina disappear to. I’d just go up and wait for all of AMY to get up there.

I followed the clear path. It turns out, after the first bend, there was a rather steep climb and ofcourse I fell on my face, onto Bertums. But I got up there eventually, with scratches and spines sticking out; I’d had to go through some more clumps of Bertum and was really regeretting not getting the machete. I was sweating and hungry but a small breeze blew and I relaxed a bit. I still couldn’t hear AMY. Seeing them was out of the question. After waiting for close to 5 minutes I started moving about, AMY wasn’t coming, I realsed in horror and I was filled with dread. I went up further, I was almsot at the top. Some more Bertum, there was a sense of urgency now that I needed to desperately find them. They would have had to have gone up- why would they turn back and go down? Why were there so many Bertum- what was that sound? THEM? Nope. The wind here was stronger and I could hear eagles at close range. There was a nest up here. The GPS showed that I had reached the pinacle. I could see the ocean. It was difficult because of all the bertum but yes it looked nice. It was only only 4:55. And I was here, in a part of the forest I wasn’t familiar with and AMY wasn’t here with me. When you are with the pig-tails, it doesn’t matter if you are the only person around. It is safe. But right now and here, it was a little unnerving. I breathed a bit, drank some water, realised I was sweating like a pig and that the GPS had lost satelite reception. Luckily my phone hadn’t and so I made the call I really didn’t want to make.

I called Michele, explained things to her and then to Anna. Michele said she’d come pick me up. I wanted an hour, one because I didn’t really know the way back down and two, I hoped I would find AMY on the way. It was difficult, going down. Luckily at least the GPS was working. But I spent some time always chasing every sound I thought I heard only to realise my way was blocked by huge cumps of bertum and that I was afraid of veering of the already dis-used trail which was probably relatively better than other areas. It was 5:45 and I was still in an area I wasn’t too sure I had been in. I wasn’t sure if the GPS was showing me the right direction. I was disoriented. I sat down, breathed deeply and opened my eyes after a few moments. I knew this rock. I’ve been here before. I’m definitely on the right track, it’s just from a different angle. After some confusion, I finally got out after a bit of back and forth with Michele over walkie-talkie abbout how far I was.

I got back feeling quite dejected. It’s really sad when you lose AMY because looking for them means spending time you could have been observing and collecting data. Anna asked to see my track. “At least I saw the beautiful view” I said. She looked at my track intently, saw where I’d marked “AMY LOST”. “Wait, you actually went all the way up the hill looking for them?, It’s so high. The beautiful viewing point is far below this” she gasped. Seriously, so I’d gone and lost them and didn’t even see the beautiful viewing point? What a pathetic tragedy. But Anna was appreciative of my resillience and saw my anguish. I just wanted to curl up in bed after taking a shower. But we had to go into town run errands and pick up Vino who comes back from KL. I decided that I needed to splurge and feel good about myself. And thus today, I had some good Chicken claypot Biryani. Anna insisted I take my day off tomorrow even though I volunteered to help her, Michele and vino look for AMY. I think I need the break. But AMY will be there tomorrow and so will we.

Trap-Jaw Ants and Wingless Flight

Can’t trap the Trap-jaw ant

The Daily Ant

Millions of years before the Wright brothers climbed into their crappy plane, worker ants were already flying around. These ants didn’t have wings. They only had super-powered elastic jaws. Even today, these ants flip through the air, crossing distances greater than 20 times their body length. These ants are Odontomachus.

odontomachusOdontomachus is hungry. Photo credit: Alex Wild

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The Quest For The Unknown

thegirlwithamuddledhead

Someone recently told me I am really short sighted. Contrary to my usual behavior,I simply smiled and walked away. For a 20 someone, what does it really imply?

I remember back in college i spent endless mornings discussing plans and making some really unrealistic plans to figure out life. So many days where we could have just enjoyed the sunrise and our tea, we were worrying about what was yet to come. Most people said we grew up too soon, we never really lived, we just planned.

My browser history was full of shopping carts that never i never checked out of, and endless wishlists. Most days were spent in day dreaming of how life would be later. There were elaborate 5 year plans. I stayed up most nights job hunting for places i’d apply to maybe 6-7 months later. There used to be a list of places i wanted…

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The rustle in the bushes

I have been spending most of my time away from Melbourne doing fieldwork in Serendip Sanctuary. In short- I study the effect temperature plays on an Australian ant species, commonly called the meat ant. One of my experiments involved waking at the ungodly hour of around 4 am so I could stumble around in the dark in the savannah-type vegetation in order to record ant behaviour. On clear full moon nights, you can see the stars and everything is hunky-dory. Especially because most meat ant colonies are in forest clearings. Not too much thick vegetation is a good thing when you can’t see what is watching you or might crawl up without your knowledge.

But this is not an account of when everything was ‘smooth sailing’, because that’s not what one remembers many years down the line if one survives to remember.

It was a  moonless night, the Australian Summer was dying and the winds were rustling through the trees. This meant I had only my flash-light throwing startling moving shadows on my way to the colony which obviously was inconveniently far from base. Funny how these things work heh! And on top of that, this colony was away from a well worn walk track, nestled instead inside a relatively wooded patch- close to short trees and bushes. I found the colony thanks to the GPS, set up my equipment and sat down in a spot relatively bereft of leaf litter hunkering down with my travel mug of hot chocolate for what I supposed would be an uneventful half an hour. The wind has almost died down and I was comforted by the warm chocolate waking me up while lulling me at the same time,a blissful experience when suddenly I heard a low rumble, something in between an angry growl and a loud snore coming from somewhere disconcertingly close. “Possums” I exclaimed and freezing for a few moments before I realised I was recording and must deter any drama. The house I was staying at was full of possums but they are usually nocturnal and we are separated by a roof and walls which is a relief because the sounds of possums erratic fighting and clawing the roof  is enough to drive one crazy.

And here I was, completely exposed, listening to this weird Darth Vader-y laboured breathing growl I had come to know so well. I turned on my flash light because possums usually get startled by the light and freeze- its hilarious, provided you are at a safe distance….which I wasn’t but I wanted to make sure it/they would not go near my set-up.

The winds were back and every movement of the branches and bushes became more unnerving. The growl had stopped but started again soon enough- this time I was sure it was closer. I was kneeling now, ready to run and stand at a distance because I couldn’t discern the different sources of rustle as the growl stopped yet again. When….my great paranoia and overthinking brought to my memory an account I had read which said that when possums felt threatened or cornered they climbed the closest tall structure. SHIT! I thought and quickly sat back down as I would be the closest tall thing (for those who know how short I am- i give you permission to snigger). Rabies isn’t a thing here so at least I would not need to worry about that. The growls continued and now I was frozen in my sitting position, completely switching places with the possums I had annoyed, by startling them into freezing. I kept moving the flashlight around hoping to at least figure out where and how many possums there were when I felt something soft brush past me and head to the bushes less than 10 metres away. I hoped it was just a startled rabbit. After my heart restarted and I could hear it loud enough in my head, I slowly moved the flashlight in the direction towards which my mystery furry friend had headed all the while relieved that if it was a possum, at least it hadn’t climbed on my head.

My voice caught in my throat and my heart stopped yet again as I saw standing frozen- a red fox. We stared at each other for what seemed like a long time- for both of us I suppose. I thought I should stand, intimidate the fox so it knows I’m not some helpless thing but here lay my dilemma, the possum/s was still growling so do I sit or stand. Ignorance truly is bliss. But while I contemplated, there was another growl, the fox unfroze before I did and sprinted. The growls stopped suddenly and the wind died down. The clouds parted revealing some stars and I realised the possums were probably growling due to the proximity of the foxes and I was probably just a poor bystander who happened to be in the line of fire.

It’s funny how a bit of calm weather and chocolate can resurrect you faltering courage. Plus, I realised when I told my parents the story that this was one of those things that everyone would find funny. Believe me, I need a few anecdotes like this. I just wish it wasn’t this bruising to my ego. But hey, that’s why we have chocolate.

PS- I found a video of the noise and read the comments- turns out I am not the only one freaked out by it.

Mysteries

My admiration for Agatha Christies’s mysteries and generally enquiring mind means when I’m not questioning the importance of society, the purpose of organization and the journey of life, my mind is still not bereft of thought. Most of my musings are in vain. Most discussions in my head are frustratingly ambiguous, or end with how much better things might be in an idyllic world.

Science, although my source of joy, is also, sadly most definite in its ambiguity and transience. But I have itches- to unveil mysteries outside of the realm of mainstream science which can give me momentary relief.

Here I present to you three recent instances- the stuff of nightmares I tell you!

  1. The BOOK – For anyone who hasn’t read Looking for Alaska and means to…SPOILER ALERT!!

I decided to finally to get with the times and read John Green’s Looking for Alaska but some helpful soul obviously received sadistic pleasure in informing us of the elements of suspense and plot twists.

Point- Asshole! It’s definitely their Small victory

  1. The definitely- not- glass slipper
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What would possess a person to leave one slipper behind on the footpath? Where’s the other one? Is this a new way of signifying drug cartel and gang turfs like they do with shoes on telephone wires?

  1. The nostalgia attack– A long forgotten song popped into my head as I lay in bed. It was from a Television show called Blue’s Clues intended for young children. It was a great show as I remember. The host Steve made ‘Nerd’ cool before The Big Bang Theory and the likes. He had a haircut that reminded me of Dexter’s nemesis Mandark, wore the same green striped shirt every day and had pants up to his waist (aah! The 90s). Did I mention he was a good artist and pretty much the coolest dancer ever? He had a dog called Blue who defied gender stereotypes being a BLUE, FEMALE, SUPER SMART character, who left paw prints as clues for Steve (I might be reading too much into it now that I want to justify my attachment to the show but think about it.). “Steve, I liked him!” I thought. But the last time I happened to chance upon Blue’s Clues, there was some dude, a wannabe- Steve. I’m sure I’m biased but I wanted to know what happened to Steve.

The mystery of the book – I didn’t want solved so fast and the mystery of the slipper, I won’t be able to solve because I didn’t have Prince Charming’s resources but this I could find. I knew it would be easy to find as there are other weirdos like me…I hoped and I found it-BIG REVEAL

So yes, I understand that we all want something we can hang on to and claim to know for sure. But plunging head first into a mystery is fun too. As long as you’re wearing both your slippers.