Chance Encounters with Pygmy Marmosets


Suddenly the treetops above us erupted in noise and chaos. We scrambled to grab our binoculars and craned our necks to find the source of mayhem high above our heads. Hearts beating fast, senses heightened, we quickly spotted a troop of tiny primates climbing and jumping through the canopy of the Amazon rainforest. In a flash they were gone and the forest returned to its silent midday slumber.

We gathered together on the trail, and in excited voices, compared notes as we tried to identify the exact species we had spotted. We quickly concluded that we had just seen a small family group of pygmy marmosets, the world’s smallest true monkey.

Still flush with excitement, we reflected on the powerful, even visceral, reactions we all felt as we watched those tiny mammals race through the treetops. Unexpected and unfiltered, this chance encounter in nature did more to ignite our curiosity than any science textbook or zoo exhibit ever had. This, we determined, was what the joy of discovery felt like.

Pygmy Marmoset

Photo courtesy of flickr creative commons:

In this age of high stakes testing, Common Core, and Next Generation Science Standards, it is easy to focus our learning (and teaching) of science to formal classroom environments, but in fact science is all around us. Taking advantage of “informal learning environments” opens up the opportunity for us to experience the joy of discovery – opening our eyes to the excitement and wonder that is science.

Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments by Fenichel and Schweingruber elaborates on the power of informal science learning. In a nutshell, informal science learning:

•    Sparks our interest and excitement in learning about the natural world.

•    Deepens our understanding of and appreciation for scientific content and knowledge we may already have or would like to acquire.

•    Engages us in scientific reasoning as we test, explore, predict, question, observe, and make sense of the world around us.

•    Encourages us to reflect on science as a way of knowing and understanding the world around us.

•    Provides us with hands on experience with the tools and language of science.

•    Develops our identity as science learners – someone who knows about, uses, and can contribute to science.


Reflecting back on that chance encounter with the pygmy marmosets, it is clear that we had also encountered the power of “informal science learning” as we all wanted to know more, learn more, and do more as citizen scientists in the Amazon.

JOIN THE DISCUSSION! When was the last time you experienced the joy of discovery? The thrill of an epiphany? A reawakening of wonder? How did these “informal” learning experiences shape your identity as a science learner?



Christa Dillabaugh is our Education and the Rainforest Editor.  A former middle school and high school science educator, she coordinates experiential field programs for educators and students in the rainforests of Central and South America.  She currently serves as education director for Amazon Rainforest Workshops and loves traipsing through rainforest mud in search of teachable moments!  You can read her Amazon field notes at