The first time I ever saw a monkey in the wild was in Thailand. Steve and I had been scheduled for a snorkeling trip but somewhere wires got crossed and we ended up going sea kayaking. The day included lunch on a deserted island beach and a rickety wooden boat ride back to shore. We were asked to save our scraps from lunch, which seemed to me at the time to be good pack-it-in/pack-it-out behavior.
What I didn’t realize was that our leftovers were lunch for monkeys.
On the way back to the main island the bright blue boat motored to a stop in a mangrove forest. Our silent floating through the trees came to an abrupt end as we were surrounded by monkeys. They were everywhere – little tiny things, about the size of house cats, in the trees.
And then on the boat.
Clearly accustomed to receiving lunch leftovers, they mobbed us. Let me be clear here: There. Were. Monkeys. Everywhere. They were on the boat. Next to me, on both sides of me, above me. I was eye to eye with one who had a baby clinging to her. I haaaaated it.
“Go on,” the captain urged, trying to hand me a watermelon rind. “Feed them.”
Uh, nope. Nope, nope, nope. No way. I’m usually very game for anything and everything while traveling, but I do not like monkeys. I never have. I certainly didn’t like looking into their uncanny little faces while they were less than a foot away from me on a boat. I mean, I couldn’t even jump off the boat if they got any closer, because some were perched on the side of the boat between me and the safety of the water (which wasn’t even all that safe).
So yeah, me and monkeys. It’s weird because I love nature so much and I can usually find something wonderful in all animals. But monkeys. Ick.
Imagine my surprise then at the monkeys here in Gaborone. We first saw them hanging around campus and from a distance they weren’t too bad. They were bigger than the monkeys we saw in Thailand, which probably helped me be not so freaked out by them.
They also weren’t on a boat with us, which definitely helped.
If you’ve been reading this blog you know that they’re not only on campus but in the tree next to our flat, and on the patio of the flat, and sometimes inside the flat. From the barrier of the screen door, I’ve gotten more comfortable with them. In fact, I’ve grown a soft spot for them. I still don’t love them, but I like seeing them.
The monkeys we have here are Vervet Monkeys. They’re generally grey, with white undersides and black faces and amazing long, prehensile tails. They live in troops of about 20 individuals with a single male who displays his blue scrotum and bright red penis as a sign of dominance (so obvious – *insert eye-roll here*).
They’re omnivorous and sleep in the trees, but spend most of their waking time on the ground, which has resulted in some amazing adaptations that, I admit, have gone a long way towards making me respect monkeys more.
For example, they have a variety of vocalizations that they use depending on which predator they encounter. There is an eagle call, which prompts the troop to scan the sky for danger; a snake call, which prompts them to stand on their hind legs and monitor the ground; a leopard call, which directs them to quickly climb to the very tops of trees; and a human call, which signals to the group that they need to make a fast break for it!
But here’s where it gets remarkable, and where it will knock the hubris of being the Great Ape right out of you:
This language, like all languages, is passed on socially. And just like human babies, Vervet Monkey babies need to learn the context of language. A human baby, before she can identify a robin from a raven, will first learn “bird.” Vervet Monkey babies, before they can distinguish an egret from an eagle, will use the “eagle-danger-call” for any bird they see, until they learn enough to differentiate threats. Lonely Planet says that babies often send the troop searching the skies for danger after mistaking a harmless bird for a predator, and that sometimes they even mistake falling leaves for threats from the sky. Researchers have observed babies mistaking far-off antelope for leopards. So they need to be taught not just the language, but the context for language.
If I were a primatologist, I’d want to study whether Vervet Monkey adolescents ever use the danger calls for a joke. My guess, just from the behavior we’ve observed from the patio and the fact that these are clearly extremely intelligent, social animals, is yes. I bet it only happens once, though, before they are brought to their senses by the anger of the adults.
It’s stuff like this that makes me like these monkeys a little bit more. That, and the fact that I’m not trapped on a boat with them.