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Students Research Animals, Plants in the Rainforest

September 14, 2013

“I have always wanted to travel, but I never expected this kind of experience. It was so much fun. I want to study animal behavior, do field research and see animals in their natural habitat.” — Chelsea Bennett.

Chelsea Bennett’s interest in animal behavior took her deep into a Central American jungle over the summer months.

The Alma College junior from Rockford spent four weeks in the Nicaraguan rainforest observing and documenting monkey behavior. Her specific target was the mantled howler monkey — a primate about the size of a large cat — found primarily in Central and South America.

Chelsea BennettChelsea Bennett

“They live in the rainforest, eat plants, rest and hang around in the trees about 15 feet above the ground,” says Bennett. “I watched them mate, feed, jump and move around in the forest canopy. They were, for the most part, gentle but curious. I learned so much from watching them; it was such a great experience.”

Bennett was enrolled in a primate behavior and ecology field course at the Madera Rainforest Conservancy. She conducted her research at the Ometepe Biological Field Station, located on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua — the largest fresh-water volcanic island in the world.

“I have always wanted to travel, but I never expected this kind of experience,” says Bennett. “It was so much fun. I want to study animal behavior, do field research and see animals in their natural habitat.”

As part of the course, Bennett was required to generate 25 hours of data for a research paper. Her study focused on prehensile tail use in monkeys.

“Mantled howler monkeys use their tails for balance, to grip branches as they travel in the trees,” she says. “This study also shows that juveniles use their tails more often than adult males or females. One reason for this is because juveniles are constantly growing. They continuously adjust for the size of their body to ensure that the branches can support their weight.”

Bennett received Alma College credit in anthropology for her summer experience.

Investigating Medicinal Plants in the Amazon

Bennett was not the only Alma College student involved in an atypical summer research project. Tustin senior Caitlin Huffman spent a portion of her summer in the jungles of the Amazon River investigating the use of medicinal plants.

Caitlin Huffman, doing fieldwork in Payamino, EcuadorCaitlin Huffman, doing fieldwork in Payamino, Ecuador

“I was approached one day by my anthropology professor,” says Huffman. “The question was ‘Do you want to go to Ecuador?’ I jumped at the chance. I’ve always been interested in the preservation of culture and indigenous peoples. The next thing I know, I’m meeting people from all over the world in the Amazon, learning with healers and shamans, and researching the medicinal qualities of exotic plants.”

Huffman, working with Alma College Biologist Brian Doyle, collected information about shamans’ use of medicinal plants. She also has a strong interest in Quechua, the local indigenous language, and was able to expand her language understanding while helping Doyle with the research.

Huffman at Machu Picchu, Peru, for a 2012 Spring Term class.Huffman at Machu Picchu, Peru, for a 2012 Spring Term class.

The Amazon provided a distinct backdrop for Huffman’s learning and development.

“To be honest, I didn’t really like it at first,” she says. “It was muddy, it was wet, and there were lots of bugs. But then I realized how amazing it was to be able to interact and learn with the people and environment. It helped me discover how to learn and research on my own. It was a great experience and an eye opener.”