By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book Project
As a resident of DC since 2003, I’m familiar with this city’s love affair with Giant Pandas. What I didn’t know until recently is that this Panda obsession is largely thanks to revolutionary research on Panda biology and reproduction conducted by Dr. Devra Kleiman, the National Zoological Park (NZP) conservation zoologist who died last year. Embarrassingly, I didn’t recognize the name Devra Kleiman when archivist Jennifer Wright, author of this 2010 article about Kleiman’s personal papers (Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-124), alerted me to Kleiman’s field books.
Most of Kleiman’s field notes focus on golden lion tamarins (GLT) and other tamarins, documenting every aspect of their lives, especially reproduction. Kleiman and her colleagues hoped to reverse the tamarins’ spiraling decent towards extinction. It was estimated fewer than 200 GLT existed when she began her mission*.
The major difference between Kleiman’s field notes and most other field notes I’ve cataloged is Kleiman didn’t really “collect specimens”. Rather, her notes document animal behavior, activities, diet, as well as external factors affecting the livelihood of tamarins. Kleiman and her team did collect blood, skin, and fur samples, and they did capture tamarins to breed in captivity before reintroducing them into the wild, yet the fundamental purpose and method of research was distinct from traditional natural history field work.
|Devra Kleiman and colleague conducting playback study.|
I don’t pretend to understand the techniques used to research Tamarins, but I noticed three common protocols described throughout Kleiman’s field notes: scans, focals, and playbacks. Scans and focals are systematic observations. Scans focus on all member of a group of animals; focals focus on an individual animal. Both adhere to specific lengths of time and seek specific information about behavior and activities. Playbacks involved projecting recordings of various animal vocalizations in the field. During these experiments, animal responses, if any, were documented and differences between male and female responses noted.
Sometimes field notes about tamarin behavior are anecdotal. One entry describes Vera, a GLT who hunts a frog by shaking and tugging at roots until she pulls it out of the ground. Another describes a step-by-step tango between an aggressive GLT, Rita, and a nervous Kleiman as each advances and retreats from the other by turns.
Although our project focuses on biological data, it was impossible to ignore notes about meetings, events, and activities relating to Kleiman’s conservation program that were interspersed between field notes. These notes provided interesting insight into the challenges Kleiman and her colleagues faced—challenges like apathy and politics. On October 25, 1991, Kleiman remembers a particularly difficult visit to a corporation: “the veep [VP] we meet is very obnoxious—suggesting that people are burned out [with] ecology (mentions a t-shirt entitled “I don’t give a s--- about the GLT)”. On March 16, 1990, Kleiman notes the effects of economic instability in Brazil on the project: “they are freezing all interest-bearing overnight accounts [...]. Cecilia [Kleiman’s colleague] had $6000 WWF grant in an overnight account. It increased by $1000 interest, but now she can’t touch it.”
Despite apathy, political instability, and other issues like poaching and deforestation, Kleiman was successful at shedding light on the issue of golden lion tamarins and helping to increase the GLT population by 800%. There are currently an estimated 1,600 wild GLT in Brazil*.
Kleiman’s field books are a refreshing and exhilarating alternative to many of her predecessor’s field books because she was a pioneer in the burgeoning field of conservation biology. Her notes reflect not only the advancement of human knowledge, but also the application of that knowledge to ensure the livelihood of species struggling for survival.
Learn about Kleiman’s electronic records here
* National Zoological Park. http://nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI/EndangeredSpecies/GLTProgram/default.cfm (accessed August 11, 2011)