ExplorersBio

Jacinta Beehner

Biologist

Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee

Photo: Jacinta Beehner

Photograph by Thore Bergman

Birthplace: U.S.

Current City: Ann Arbor, Michigan

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I think that once I got past the circus performer stage, I always knew I wanted to be a scientist, although I'm not sure I knew exactly what this meant. I still have a picture that I drew when I was six of what I wanted to be when I grew up. In the picture is a girl in a white lab coat holding up a smoking beaker. I'm sure I thought science was more like magic.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I knew I wanted to be a biologist, but I thought the only way to study animals was to become a veterinarian for wild animals. It wasn't until I was a junior in college before my ecology professor told me that "animal behavior" was a legitimate field of study. That was a lightbulb moment. I never looked back.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to monkeys?

I'm not so sure I'd call it "inspiration" as much as just pure incredulity that I can actually get paid to do what I do. Who doesn't want to watch a soap opera of monkeys all day?

What's a normal day like for you?

So I don't bore you with the details of a normal day in my laboratory, I'll tell you about a normal day in the field. My alarm goes off around 6 a.m. It takes another ten minutes before I can muster up the courage to jump out of my down sleeping bag into the cold air while I scramble for some warm clothes (my hut is over 10,000 feet above sea level and on most mornings the temperature hovers just above freezing). After shoving down some food and tea, I pick up my Ethiopian park ranger and field assistants from the nearby village, and we head out to find the monkeys.

There is a perfect lookout point where we can see five different sleeping cliffs simultaneously. We try to get to this spot by about 6:45 a.m. to be sure we can watch the monkeys climb up onto the grassy plateau. Once we spot a group, we rush down to see if we recognize any of them. If we do, then the monkey soap opera begins once again, with us recording every love triangle, every alliance made, every alliance broken. Although it's tough to pull ourselves away from the drama, we occasionally have to collect various samples throughout the day. These samples include fecal samples (for hormones and DNA), urinary samples (for other types of hormones), chest photos (for assessing male status and female reproductive condition), and body photos (with laser reference points that allow us to later take body measurements).

The day itself is generally divided into two halves: the march out, and the march back. Geladas tend to sit on the top of the sleeping cliff for about one to two hours and socialize. Then they begin their day journey of grass eating, mowing a path for about two to five kilometers over rolling hills of grass. Then at about midday, there is a stop for more socializing, followed by a return trip back to the sleeping cliffs (sometimes the same one, sometimes one slightly further down the cliff).

Once we get a sense of where the monkeys will sleep, we generally head home in the late afternoon or early evening. We say goodbye to the monkeys and make the trek home, usually exchanging monkey stories as we go.

Back at the camp, I hardly put my bag down when I am invited by one of the park rangers' wives for "coffee ceremony"—an Ethiopian tradition of roasting coffee beans over coals, pounding them into grinds, and making thick sugary coffee accompanied by incense and lively Ethiopian chatter. I practice my Amharic, and everyone present laughs at my feeble attempts at humor.

After the ceremony, I return to the drudgery of data processing in my hut. First, I process all fecal and urinary samples for safe storage, I download all of our computer notes onto the camp computers. I set up the timer so that the computers will be charged by solar power the next day. Then comes the best part of the day—checking satellite email. I get a quick fix from home with updates from friends and family and then I then settle in to cook dinner and get to sleep to begin again the next day.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

My favorite experience in the field has been getting to know the Ethiopian park rangers and their families. Feeling welcome every time I return makes me feel like I'm coming home each time.

One of the most challenging experiences was fighting a bush fire that was threatening our village in the park. I'd also fought bush fires at a previous field site in Botswana, and these are some of the most frightening memories of my life.

What are your other passions?

I'm not sure I'd call them passions, but I like to draw and paint with oils. I love classical music and I love to play guitar (even though I am terrible at it).

What do you do in your free time?

I now have two small children, so (alas) I have no free time. But what free time I do have, I love spending with them. I brought one of them to the field already, and plan to bring them both sometime next year.

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In Their Words

I'm not so sure I'd call it 'inspiration' as much as just pure incredulity that I can actually get paid to do what I do. Who doesn't want to watch a soap opera of monkeys all day?

—Jacinta Beehner

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