Go to Ethiopia, venture north from the capital, Addis Ababa, deep into the highlands, and in a valley tucked away amongst rolling hills, 11,000 feet above sea level, you will find a tent—my home for the past 12 months.
To explain how I got here, let’s rewind a few years, to my college graduation back in 2016. Here I was, after four years of papers, presentations and Papa John’s pizzas, thrilled to be finally losing my training wheels and leaving the nest. I was ready to carpe the heck out of every diem and make my mark on the world.
Upon leaving my little campus bubble, however, spring-stepped and sanguine, I gradually realized how wholly unprepared I was for real life, and these grand aspirations started to fizzle. What was I doing out here? What is anyone doing out here? What is life? With a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, I could tell you the difference between peripatric and parapatric speciation in a heartbeat or rattle on about the nuances of difference between camera and compound eyes, but I could not tell you a whole lot about what doing ecology or evolutionary biology actually meant (or pretty much anything else, for that matter).
Shattered, lost and confused, I did the most natural thing for anyone in my shoes to do and became a teacher for a year, imparting sage life advice to equally lost and confused kids in rural Thailand. After a year of gratuitously shelling out “sense” and “scholarship,” amidst a growing sense of ethical angst and unease, I finally found the perfect solution to my woes: a job prospect that promised not only an escape from this daunting “real life” thing I had been trying, but also practical field research experience.
Within just a few months, I found myself living in that tent at a remote research camp in Guassa, Ethiopia, a site dedicated to the study of the behavioral ecology of wild gelada monkeys (Theropithecus gelada). Together with my co-manager, Iris, and a graduate student from the University of Minnesota, Carrie, the three of us have been the only contingent of English speakers for miles in any direction. For the past year, I have been among a select few people anywhere who can unabashedly (and legally) say that I am up to monkey business.
“Business” in this context entails collecting data for the Guassa Gelada Research Project (or GGRP), one of only two long-term projects dedicated to studying geladas in the wild (the other being in the Simien Mountains, in the far north of Ethiopia). The GGRP is the brainchild of Nga Nguyen and Peter Fashing, two happily married primatologists based at California State University Fullerton. And with the help of research assistants like Iris and me and a few local farmers who double as field scouts and camp staff, the project has been up and running since 2005.
Why on earth would anyone go all the way to Ethiopia to study these monkeys, you might be wondering? Well, because, in a world brimming with lush tropical jungles, majestic temperate forests and panoramic open savannahs, geladas have chosen to lay their claim on jagged mountain peaks peppered throughout Ethiopia, simply nowhere else in the world. Spend enough days on the edge of hypothermia with wet, raisin digits, and enough nights looking for the pit latrine in the murky fog, and you will also start to question the prudence of this habitat choice.
But while these alpine grasslands make for harsh habitats, they also make for absolutely stunning vistas. At Guassa, stand on any cliff edge overlooking the Rift Valley, miles above the shadows of clouds that darken the verdant swells of Ethiopian farmland below, and you have to suppress the urge to break into spontaneous applause. Furthermore, while the terrain may not be particularly tractable for us flimsy researchers, the geladas themselves are remarkably well adapted to their environments. The males sport long, luxuriant manes that would put a Patagonia-brand puffer to shame, and the females and juveniles, without these capes to keep warm, have perfected the “rain huddle,” whereby deluges are endured through prolonged group-hugs and the art of shoving one’s face into another’s fur.
While on the surface it would seem that anyone with a raincoat and enough high-altitude pills could make a living studying geladas out here, collecting meaningful, long-term data to unravel the secret lives of these charismatic Old World monkeys is a whole other story. Geladas are unique among primate species in that they live in nested multi-level societies, a trait shared only by a handful of non-human primates.
Their smallest social structure, the one-male unit or OMU, comprises one leader male and several related females and their offspring, but their modular social system means that multiple OMUs often band together to form even larger herds. In practice, this translates to there being a whole lot of monkeys together at once, a nightmare for any dilettante trying to make heads or tails of what is going on.
Furthermore, geladas are also unique in that they are graminivores, or grass-eaters, and often devote more than half of their waking hours to grazing. In practice, this translates to researchers spending a dizzying amount of time staring at handfuls of grass, and often finding lush-green smears of dubious origin on their clothing, curiously reminiscent of said vegetation.
In our case, the GGRP has been studying the same gelada herd for over a decade—a group of more than 200 named individuals currently divided into 13 OMUs, which we collectively call Steelers Band. Having monkeys already habituated to the presence of researchers means that they are less shy and easier to work with, but becoming a competent researcher necessarily still involves identifying and differentiating between every monkey in the group. For me, even learning the names of 200 human beings is a daunting task, so when you subtract the clothing, add the fur and make everyone three feet tall, additional problems present themselves.
It is really no wonder then that we researchers have to resort to characteristics as esoteric as butt hue, nose wrinkles, ear hairiness and even nipple size to tell individuals apart. Of the many lessons I’ve learned, a particularly noteworthy one is if you repeat, “Penny has fat nipples” in your head enough times, you too will start having some disturbing scenes sidling into your slumbers.
Fast-forward through months in the field, however, and telling monkeys apart starts to feel like second nature. Names like Brexit, Reverend Lovejoy, R2D2 and Pie start to roll off your tongue like, well, pie, and distinctive personalities begin to emerge. Singe is constantly cranky and always takes it out on others. Giardia has no friends except lazy-eyed Kim Kardashian. Banyan embodies “long hair, don’t care,” and will practically sit on your feet when he is feeding. Huck has yet to figure out that you can’t run through a tree. Lost in your own little monkey universe, the hours whiz by. The hypnotic and rhythmic twang of grass-plucking becomes the mellifluous soundtrack to your workdays, punctuated periodically by OMU takeovers, Ethiopian wolf and leopard sightings, and even live births.
Another perk of having wild monkeys at your back door is the opportunity to pursue your own independent projects. Inspired by a shipment of scientific papers from Peter and by friends invariably describing Iris and me as either “best friends” or as a “bickering old married couple,” I decided that for my own personal project I would turn to our monkey neighbors for some close-quartered living advice. Specifically, I wanted to know if our geladas exhibited post-conflict reconciliatory behaviors—if they kissed and made up after fighting.
To test this, I monitored gelada individuals to see if those involved in an altercation subsequently engaged in positive social behaviors (like grooming) sooner after a conflict than they would on a normal non-conflict day, the control variable. Now, after a year of observation, the preliminary results are finally in, but until the numbers are crunched, the jury is still out on what specific advice the gelada relationship hotline might have in store for bickering old married me. Stay tuned for details!
As easy as it might be to romanticize fieldwork, especially at Guassa, now is perhaps a good time to warn that not all aspects of mountain living are easy. There are the torrential thunderstorms, for example, when you’re lying in the dark praying that lightning does not disintegrate your tent. There’s recording the number of flea bites you have accumulated over the year, and feeling a mixture of both revulsion and pride at having reached 500. There’s tricking yourself into thinking that rice with vegetables is different from vegetables with rice, just so you don’t have to eat the same thing every day. There’s realizing that while Giardia can be a cute name for a monkey, it is categorically less cute coming out of your system. There’s tally-marking every day that you have gone without internet, but giving up when you hit triple digits. There’s waking up to a rat squatting on your shoulder, chewing on your hair…
No matter how tough Guassa life can be though, this has still been a truly perspective-shifting year for me. There is something about being wholly engrossed in the lives of your monkeys that is both beguiling and humbling—a gentle reminder of your own overall insignificance in the grand scheme of things. The pains, pressures and problems of hectic everyday living fade into the background, and your biggest worry all week becomes whether Tickle-Me-Elmo will reappear with his OMU or not.
Out here, where you lose a roof over your head and a toilet seat under your butt, you find that you are just a fellow primate species, watching kindred spirits live their lives. Out here, where you lose your connection to Game of Thrones, Instagram and the most recent political scandals, you gain a deeper appreciation of a world where humans are just one small cog, among a million others, in the great wheel of life, all churning along in tandem. Out here, in our little corner of the world, we often forget that there is indeed anything more to life than monkey business.