Fire Storm: Field Researchers and Their Subjects Endure Nature's Tempestuous Power

A group of spider monkeys and their scientist observers confront extreme weather and its fiery aftermath in a Central American rainforest

Cave-riddled hills jut steeply from the flat pine savanna of Runaway Creek Nature Reserve in Belize. Tapirs, jaguars and wild pigs call the forest-blanketed hillsides home. The territory also encompasses the range of a group of spider monkeys whose lives University of Calgary anthropologist Mary Pavelka and graduate students Kayla Hartwell and Jane Champion have chronicled for four years. The team has amassed a detailed record that goes beyond the animals' daily comings and goings to include measuring stress hormones and the parasites that inhabit their intestinal tracts.

Years in the jungle confers exposure to the natural cycles that inevitably beset any forested ecosystem, opening a broader panorama on the dynamics of the animals' lives. In October 2010 Hurricane Richard ravaged the jungle, uprooting countless trees and stripping foliage. The destruction, which left humans and monkeys disoriented, caused the researchers to switch gears and track the recovery of the forest as well as forge new trails through the most afflicted areas to see how the monkeys fared.

Fruit trees had suffered extensive damage, forcing the monkeys to consume what leaves they could find. Just as the jungle started to recover, the dry season brought scorching temperatures—and with it, of course, fire.

The surrounding savanna commonly burns but the abundance of hurricane deadfall drove flames into the hills, reducing huge tracts of forest to char. For weeks smoke and ash choked the researchers as they scrambled over the smoldering tree remains. The fires spared the spider monkeys, but a number of individuals from a nearby group of howler monkeys succumbed to the blaze. Food shortages and the stresses of a decimated habitat forced the spider monkeys to adapt yet again. The group has proved its resilience, but how it will fare with the likelihood of more storms followed by yet more habitat burns, a possible by-product of the planet's inexorable warming, remains unknown.

» Here are some pictures of the effect of the Fire Storm at Belize's Runaway Creek Nature Reserve

RUNAWAY CREEK'S LUSH RAINFOREST Runaway Creek Nature Reserve lies south of Belize City, Belize. Flat, pine savanna surrounds steep karst limestone hills, covered in low broadleaf, semi-deciduous tropical forest.

DELICIOUS COPAL FRUIT Mary Pavelka and her team have watched spider monkeys pursue Protium copal, a favorite fruit, for four years.

PRISTINE FOREST CANOPY The forest area dubbed the "belly button" by the researchers looked untouched during an early aerial jaunt in 2008.

LEGACY OF RICHARD Three weeks after Hurricane Richard in October 2010, areas surrounding the center of the belly button had sustained extensive damage to the forest canopy.

DAMAGED, BUT STILL STANDING Richard caused significant damage: Countless trees shorn of leaves or branches remained uprooted. The debris on the forest floor provided fuel for fire in the following dry season.

A REAL FIREWALL The risk of forest fires is high in the dry season following a hurricane. Flames swept across the savanna. Hurricane-felled trees in the forest allowed the fire to spread into the hills.

UP IN FLAMES Flames consumed huge sections of the forest leaving ash and blackened trees where lush vegetation once thrived.

A CHARRED FOREST Aerial shot of the belly button two weeks after the fire began.

REDUCED TO ASH A thick layer of ash covered the forest floor amidst the remains of trees.

STILL HOME? A spider monkey gazed out over the charred remains of the forest in the valley below. For the monkeys, the fires meant the further destruction of their arboreal home, sleeping sites, food sources and travel routes....

NEW SPECIES INVASION In the months after the fire an opportunistic plant species ( Ipomoea sepacuitensis ), uncommon in the region, took advantage of the damaged areas and quickly took root and spread, influencing the dynamics of the ecosystem....

A TALE OF STORM AND FIRE Naturalists can rarely avail themselves of data gathered before and after a natural disaster in an animal habitat under study. The resiliency of spider monkeys and other forest inhabitants remains in question...

Scientific American