Summer 2009

Field Notes

Heidi Bissell

To many Chinese environmentalists, the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey is the poster child of the country’s emerging commitment to conservation. But the endangered animal, which lives in the high elevations of southwestern China, isn’t one for the limelight. Skittish and nomadic, it’s rarely seen in the wild by humans, and even scientists know little about where and how it lives.

This summer, UW-Madison graduate student Heidi Bissell is headed to Yunnan province to change that. But she’s not hunting monkeys. She’s after their food.

In eastern China, snub-nosed monkeys have coexisted with humans mostly by avoiding them.

“People have done behavioral observations of these monkeys to measure what they’re eating,” says Bissell, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in zoology. But it’s an imperfect science because the monkeys live in steep terrain and avoid run-ins with people, making close observation difficult. Bissell’s alternative is to examine the monkeys’ feeding grounds, collecting bits of plants and feces to create a more precise model of their diet.

“It’s a lot easier to find feces than it is to catch a sight of one of these animals,” she says.

Collecting monkey droppings may not sound glamorous, but the setting most certainly is. The section of Yunnan occupied by the monkeys—a rugged stretch of mountains sliced by the Salween, Mekong and Yangtze rivers—is one of the most biologically diverse temperate regions on Earth. China established its first national park in the area, which was listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 2003.

The region has also been a locus for scientific collaboration. In 2006, UW-Madison secured a grant through the National Science Foundation to fund U.S. graduate students working on conservation and sustainable development in Yunnan. Since then, more than a dozen UW students have conducted research in areas ranging from plant diversity to agricultural practices, usually in collaboration with Chinese scholars.

“Our hope is that these students will be part of a new generation of scientists that can do interdisciplinary work really well,” says wildlife ecology professor Bill Karasov, Bissell’s advisor and one of the architects of the China collaboration. “From a conservation standpoint, they are also producing knowledge about the key features of this area that can contribute to protecting its biological treasures.”

Bissell’s research, for example, may help refine conservationists’ understanding of the kinds of habitat needed to protect snub-nosed monkeys, whose total population is estimated below 2,000. She hopes to develop a “nutrition map” of the region to identify the most suitable places for the monkeys to live.

“Right now, they’re living in some pretty harsh habitat,” she says. “I want to figure out whether they’ve been pushed there and that’s the limit of where they can go, or whether they’re fine and they can find everything they need.”

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