don't stare at a macaque -- 4/11/19

Today's encore selection -- from Emergent Ecologies by Eben Kirksey. There is a colony of macaques, an "old world" monkey, living in Florida:

"Large groups of free-ranging monkeys, some 130 individuals all told, live in swamplands and riparian woodlands along the Silver River, about two hours north of Dade City, [Florida]. ... Movies like The Yearling (1946) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) were filmed here along with the 1930s Tarzan classics featuring Johnny Weissmuller, which have a strong grip on the local and national imagination. ...

"Four rhesus macaques were introduced to a small island on the Silver River in 1936, according to a local investigative reporter, in hopes of attract­ing more tourists. Colonel Tooey, 'a big heavy fellow with a red face and sandy hair' who operated a jungle cruise boat tour, purchased them from a circus sideshow based in Rochester, New York. After creating Monkey Island in the middle of the Silver River, by dredging a short canal and outfitting the islet with houses and swings, he turned them loose. But, unbeknownst to Colonel (that is his first name, not a military title), rhe­sus macaques are very capable swimmers. They quickly escaped from the island and began to populate the woodlands of central Florida. Colonel Tooey and the glass-bottom boat captains from Silver Springs began feed­ing the monkeys as a regular part of their tours, in hopes of keeping some near the river. ...

" 'John Daniels' (a pseudonym), a former park ranger and proud National Rifle Association member [describes the macaques]. ... Pointing to a big cypress with a distinctive Y-fork of branches where the original Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, once swung, John said that this tree likely sprouted in the fifteenth century, based on the slow-growth habit of this species. ...

"When we encountered the monkeys during [John's] tour, he showed us how they were entangled in social and ecological networks (occasionally involving humans) while keeping their capacity for flight.

"Rhesus macaques are attentive students of human behavior and tech­nology. John told us that they would be indifferent to our approach in kayaks but would materialize out of the woods with the sound of crin­kling plastic wrappers. Illustrating his point, John quickly produced a small crowd of monkeys just by opening and closing an empty snack wrap­per he had on hand. The crowd eventually dispersed since no actual food was on offer. John told us, 'I might be in my boat, forty feet back, and as soon as I unzip my cooler, they are gonna look, they are gonna chatter. That's just being conditioned like ole man Pavlov said.' He added, 'Hear zipper. See food. Come to edge of water. Get reward. Okay. Good behav­ior.' Monkey mothers teach their babies how to live in the world, John said. 'Infants riding around on Momma's belly or her back know that every twitch means something. When they get older, and start venturing off on their own, Momma will slap baby's hand, or bark, saying, "Don't touch that." When the baby really steps out of line, Big Red the alpha male will intervene and put it back in line.' ...

"John recounted some monkey behaviors as evidence of higher­-order learning -- an awareness of the context of their interactions with people. 'If you meet one of these monkeys on land, when you are walking and they are up in the trees, and you stare directly at them, they will raise hell and come at you,' he said. 'But if you are in a boat and you stare at them, they will just sit there on the bank looking back, waiting for a hand-out.' Thus they clearly distinguish between kinds of beings in the world: boat people are distinct from land people. Boaters with food are beings of active interest, while boaters with none are of little concern. Macaques understand human ontologies in terms of our actions. Boaters who are feeding are beings that they are actively trying to generate. Monkeys try to transform stingy boaters into feeding boaters by cooing and even staring.

"In macaque societies, it is impolite to stare. Eye contact is threatening. 'Direct eye to eye contact means, "I challenge you," "I am boss around here," or it can mean "stop that,"' according to Bob Gottschalk, a retired engineer from Iowa, who studies the Silver River monkeys as a citizen scientist. 'In most cases eye contact between humans and monkeys means "I chal­lenge you." Of course, that wouldn't be wise,' he wrote in a report about the monkeys for local officials. 'The wise action is to look away, which means 'I don't want any trouble,' or 'I accept the fact that you are the boss.' 'Mouth open, corners of the mouth forward, and ears back are signs of a serious threat,' he adds. Primatologists, who have authored extensive inventories of macaque behaviors called ethograms, generally refer to this as an 'open mouth threat.' Standard inventories of aggressive behavior also include 'branch shaking,' the 'yawn threat,' and 'head bob threat.' More subtle behaviors include the 'eyelid flash,' the 'silent bared-teeth display' or 'fear grimace,' and the 'lip smack.' ...

"Power dynamics in macaque societies have been extensively studied by primatologists. Female rhesus macaques obtain rank based on the posi­tion of their mother within the matriarchy, with each new daughter get­ting a higher rank than her older sister. Males generally join new groups of unrelated individuals as adults and constantly jockey for position. They usually follow a 'seniority rule' where they rise in rank as other males leave or die. The alpha male, who is dominant over all other members of the group, usually does not hold this rank very long. The top-ranking female is dominant over all other females and males (with the exception of the alpha male). Nested hierarchies produce one counterintuitive re­sult: the third-highest ranking member of a rhesus macaque society is the alpha female's youngest daughter."



Eben Kirksey


Emergent Ecologies


Duke University Press


2015 Duke University Press


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