Louisa Watson exploring the Ecuadorian rainforest.

In conversation with Louisa Watson


An early passion for animals

When were you first aware you had a passion for animals?
I have always had an interest in animals ever since I could remember. I guess you could say that I knew what my purpose in life was since I was very young. Even before I am physically able to remember, I have been told that I was instantly drawn to animals – especially the exotic kind. 

How did this sense of purpose develop as you grew up?
I kept this passion alive by volunteering with the National Trust young ranger programme when I lived in the Lake District. I always watched David Attenborough and other wildlife documentaries and spent every moment I could surrounding myself with animals and learning everything about them.
Have you always wanted to be a zoologist?
Obviously, when I was younger I didn’t know a zoologist was a role to aspire to. As I have grown up, my career preference has become more specialised as I've been able to understand the terminology. 
My first memory is when I was 4 years old and I would tell people I wanted to be a ‘safari vet’ when I was older. This progressed to zookeeper when I was 8 and zoologist when I was 12. 
Since then I have realised I have an avid interest in primates, so would love to branch off into primatology within the world of zoology. This is an ambition I started to realise thanks to my placement in the Amazon and my dissertation research trip to the Calakmul Reserve in Mexico.
Louisa Watson in the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Louisa Watson in Kenya.
Louisa Watson and camera.
Louisa Watson in the Ecuadorian rainforest.

Studying zoology at Plymouth

How did your career aspirations lead you to Plymouth?
I visited Plymouth when I was around 13 on a family holiday and saw the University. As soon as I saw it I told my mum that the University of Plymouth would be where I will be going – bearing in mind the zoology degree didn’t exist at that point and in fact, my cohort was the first of the course.

How has your course helped develop your interest in zoology?
The course has definitely helped by giving me insight into the research world, which has enabled me to think about a career focus I would like to work towards. 
Before the course, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the research aspect but I've found that it's an important part of being a zoologist and it has grown on me. 
The field course to Mpala in Kenya also developed my interest in research as we were exposed to the sort of conditions that we could face as future zoologists. It was especially nice being able to experience the species in their natural habitat – a valuable learning experience. 
I have also found that our lecturers are actively engaged with us and provide more opportunities for networking and insight into the industry.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I would say my biggest challenge has been overcoming self-doubt and imposter syndrome; something many in the profession can relate to. However, I try not to let it affect me and rather use it as motivation to do better and achieve the things that I want to. 
I have been actively challenging this by pushing myself out of my comfort zone and putting myself out there. I am building a platform on social media to show what I get up to as I progress in my career and have been receiving contact from other organisations and universities helping to expand my network. 

I was contacted by a university in Puerto Rico to participate in a seminar and talk about my journey into zoology, something I would never have had the confidence to do before I pushed myself out of my comfort zone.

It did take some encouragement from my degree lead Dr Alexander Wilson and a few others for me to agree to do it, as I've never been a public speaker – however, if I want a career in research I have to get used to talking to crowds.
The wild tamarins of Merazonia.
The wild tamarins of Merazonia
A two-toed sloth.
A two-toed sloth
Shimi, baby woolly monkey Louisa helped to rehabilitate.
Baby woolly monkey Shimi
Louisa Watson's cabin solely lit up using candles in the Amazon.
Cabin by candelight

A placement in the Amazon

How did you hear about your placement opportunity to the Amazon?
I knew I wanted to go to the tropics as it would be a valuable experience. I discovered Merazonia – a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre situated on 250 acres of rainforest in Ecuador – on Volunteer World while searching for placements. 
What drew me to Merazonia is that they have a strict hands-off policy with their rehabilitation (obviously there are some exceptions to this policy) meaning that they are an ethical organisation and put the welfare of the animals in their care as their top priority. 
The Amazon stood out to me because going there had been on my bucket list ever since I did a school project on it back when I was 8 years old. I managed to make that happen with the help of the Turing Scheme funding.

What was working in the Amazon like?
Working in the Amazon was amazing! So much so I am planning on returning next year and maybe long term once I have done a masters.
Was it what you expected?
I have done voluntary work in the rainforest of Costa Rica before and so I had an idea of what to expect. However, the experience I had definitely exceeded my expectations by far. I really liked living in a wood cabin with only mesh windows and no electricity.

It was so refreshing not being surrounded by technology 24/7, living life in the moment, surrounded by an amazing ecosystem. 

Can you tell us about any memorable highlights?
There were many interesting and memorable moments when working. On one occasion myself and another volunteer got lost in the jungle (which may I add is a land of jaguars, pumas and Andean bears – just to name a few!) for a few hours while collecting foliage for the baby woolly monkeys and ended up 10km away from the centre – on the whole other side of the local town.
Federico, the baby tamandua (Anteater) cared for by Louisa.
Federico – the baby tamandua
Federico, the baby tamandua (Anteater) cared for by Louisa.
Goliath, the baby giant Louisa helped to rehabilitate.
Goliath – the baby giant anteater
Goliath, the baby giant Louisa helped to rehabilitate.

Lessons learnt in the jungle

What did you learn while you were there?
Where do I begin? I learnt so much at Merazonia to do with rehabilitation, especially for young animals. I was lucky enough to be trusted with and actively involved in the one-to-one rehabilitation of three young animals throughout my time there – Shimi, a baby woolly monkey, a baby giant anteater called Goliath and a young tamandua named Federico. I witnessed the tamandua successfully be released and thrive out in the wild on his own. He taught me a lot about how dedicated you need to be when providing one-to-one rehabilitation.
As I want to go into primatology, being trusted to take a very young and vulnerable woolly monkey out into the jungle to teach her what her mother would be showing her was a highlight. It taught me a lot about how they communicate and behave. 
Plus, I witnessed her doing behaviours and trying to communicate with me in ways that I had seen the other baby woolly monkeys had done with the adult woolly monkeys that they were with.

Did you pick up any new skills?
I became a plant expert (although not in the technical sort of way) because due to the diets of the primates, they often have a particular palate to leaves that they will eat. I had to be able to quickly identify leaves that a woolly monkey would eat compared to more sparse leaves that the red howlers would eat. 
When working with these primates, most of the day consisted of being out in the jungle finding these particular leaves. This was crucial to learn because some leaves could have adverse effects on their health. 
Before learning all the different leaves, I would just look at the jungle and see green. Now I can spot certain ones from afar and strangely, even though I’m no longer in the jungle, I am still unconsciously thinking about if the primates would like the leaves I see in my everyday life.
What was the main lesson that you learnt working in wildlife rehabilitation in the Amazon?
I quickly learnt that wildlife rehabilitation isn’t for the faint-hearted and requires a lot of hard work and patience. 
In South America especially, rehabilitation centres are receiving animals that have been seized by the ministry out of the illegal pet trade and so it can be hard witnessing animals in such distress and poor condition as a result. 

It is incredibly rewarding to see animals going from being on the brink of death to thriving and living the life they should be – which is what I witnessed with the young tamandua I cared for.

Has the experience changed your ideas of your career path?
My experience at Merazonia has enhanced my career path. Before going out my focus was in situ primate research. However, the experience I gained in wildlife rehabilitation, especially with a variety of primate species, showed me that I would also like to go into primate rehabilitation. This works hand-in-hand with the research part of my career path and means I could do both at the same time.

Would you recommend similar placement opportunities to other students?
1000%, the rainforest is a life-changing place! It not only teaches you a lot about the natural world but it also allows you to discover things about yourself that you may not have realised. It is an invaluable experience to have on your CV. If there are any students looking to go to the rainforest, I really do recommend Merazonia, they were truly amazing there.
Louisa Watson feeding a rhinoceros
Louisa Watson feeding a rhinoceros
Louisa Watson feeding a rhinoceros
Louisa Watson feeding a rhinoceros

A dissertation research expedition to Mexico

What inspired your research topic for your undergraduate dissertation?
I decided to undertake a project investigating the effects of anthropogenic climate change and habitat destruction on Howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) and Geoffroy’s Spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) populations in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. 
I was inspired to pursue this topic because the reserve is profoundly affected by both of these factors and the situation is only expected to worsen as humanity continues to exceed the planet's biological limits in years to come. 
I wanted to do a project where I could actively contribute to the conservation of these endangered species to help make a difference, which this allowed me to do.
Can you tell a little about what it was like to experience conducting this research?
To collect my data, I spent six weeks living in a remote research camp in the reserve with an organisation called Operation Wallacea. It was certainly an interesting experience that came with its challenges, but I loved every minute. 
Living in the field provided me with a deep insight into the ecological constraints facing the reserve's biodiversity. Witnessing this first-hand was devastating but inherently fuelled my drive to want to have an impact through my research.
What was a typical day like in the reserve?
My typical day involved getting up at 4am to go on primate follows, we would then spend hours following whichever group we had that day. Whilst the howler monkeys were relatively sedentary, spending much of their time resting in the canopy, thus making them easier to follow, the spider monkeys however were highly active and agile, often requiring us to run through dense undergrowth while sampling and GPS tracking to keep up with them. Furthermore, I conducted additional data collection by completing transects in various survey sites within the reserve. During these surveys, I meticulously documented any encountered primates and assessed habitat quality through habitat surveys.

What are the main lessons that you learnt from the experience?  Did anything surprise or inspire you?
It was quite an adventure and it taught me a lot about what it takes to be a primatologist in the field. It isn't as easy as some may think! Having to live in a tent amid soaring temperatures hitting 50 degrees during a drought with no access to running water, electricity, or the outside world was certainly challenging. But it is an experience I cherish as it taught me resilience, adaptability and the essence of fieldwork, thus allowing me to appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into conducting research in the wild.

How did working on dissertation project influence your career plans?
My dissertation research experience has solidified my determination to pursue a career in primatological field research. I have loved every part of the process! As a result, I am progressing onto postgraduate research in primatology to carry on this long-lived childhood passion.
Louisa Watson presenting her dissertation presentation on my passion
Louisa presenting her dissertation presentation

Working towards a dream career

As you approach the end of course, can you share with us some highlights?
Where do I begin? As I reflect on my experience, I have to say that the people I met along the way – both peers and lecturers – have been the foundation of this journey. Being surrounded by like-minded and passionate individuals has instilled a sense of optimism and has made the experience all the more fulfilling.
Additionally, the degree enabled me to travel the world doing what I love, I’ve spent time in the Amazon rainforest, the Mayan jungle, the African savannah, and Canada – all within these past four years. Something that I initially didn’t think was possible while studying a full-time degree. As a result, I have been able to achieve childhood dreams whilst forging even more ambitions along the way, which has been incredibly rewarding and has opened many doors for me going forward.
A major highlight from my experience has to be the opportunity I had to go to Kenya for our second-year field course. Studying the amazing wildlife there and putting the theory we learnt in the UK into practice in the field with some of the most charismatic megafauna was incredible. Not to mention, being able to experience that with my peers and lecturers helped to form a sense of camaraderie within the cohort, thus contributing to a feeling of belonging.
How has studying BSc (Hons) Zoology changed your career plans?

If I hadn’t chosen to study zoology at Plymouth, I don’t think I would be where I am today; ready to take the next step to progress to my dream career of becoming a primatologist aided by the unwavering support and encouragement of Dr Wilson. 

The personal development stemming from this experience has been extensive, the person I was when I started back in 2020 is only a fraction of the person I am today, and I am beyond grateful for that.
For any students reading this who are yet to commence their journey studying zoology at Plymouth, you are going to be so lucky to be taught by the wonderful lecturers who have shaped my experience and helped me to become who I am today!
Develop an understanding of all aspects of animal biology in terrestrial, marine and freshwater environments. Gain in-depth knowledge of animal ecology and evolution, and develop the key lab skills in animal behaviour, molecular biology, physiology, and cellular biology that are sought after by employers and are necessary for postgraduate education.
You will gain key practical experience in diverse laboratory and field practicals across your studies and have the opportunity to participate in residential field courses in years one and two, giving you first-hand experience of a range of ecosystems. Recent field course locations include Slapton in Devon and Kenya.

Study BSc (Hons) Zoology

The pink feather colour of Flamingos is due to carotenoids they obtain through crustaceans and Cyanobacteria in their diet. The pigments in the diet are protein bound and blue/green but turn pink when dissolved in lipid. The same effect occurs between raw and cooked lobsters and shrimps.