Learning Monkeys

I have been learning individual monkeys for the past few months. It is very challenging considering that the species I am more familiar with are the Philippine tarsiers and, cursorily, the long-tailed macaques. The only time I saw a live rhesus was during a visit to a zoo in Albuquerque, NM. Now, I have around 150 rhesus monkeys roaming in a 15-hectare island to learn from and identify.

The first few days were a real challenge. The monkeys looked no different from the other macaques elsewhere: quadrupedal, diurnal, sexually dimorphic, a hair ball with a human-like face.  The difficulty of learning the monkeys was compounded by my initial fear of the primate. Not so much that they are potential carriers of several pathogens, Herpes B among them, but the possibility that they might charge and rip the flesh off my leg–like that neighbor’s dog that crunched my behind when I was a kid.

The male rhesus weren’t interested in taming my wild imagination at all. A male monkey would cross my path from time to time, a  foot away or less, sometimes stepping on my shoe, as if letting me know that he can invade my personal bubble whenever he wants to. This constant flaunting of male rhesus authority in the island however made me immune to this display of power.

Almost often too, the beauty of the island diverts my attention away from the macaques. Cayo Santiago is composed of two small islands connected by a narrow semi-circle shaped sandy isthmus. The island is embraced by the emerald sea from all sides flourishing with all sorts of marine life. Manatees sometimes forage on the abundant sea grasses growing along the littoral zone. A lone osprey haunts the skyscape of the island. Iguanas–descendants of feral reptilian pets–also reside there together with a solitary Puerto Rican boa and a host of mantou crabs, egrets, pelicans, herons, etc.

Learning the monkeys was a painstaking process of gaining the census takers’ perspective. The census takers–our primary mentors–were tasked to teach us the basics of memorizing individual monkey IDs (Us here means Jackie and I. Jackie had experience working with baboons. A dive instructor and a primatologist, she has worked in both terrestrial and marine contexts). We went out with them as they take the census of each animal on the island. The census takers, with years upon years of experience, can identify each rhesus on the island with ease (around 1300 individuals). I suppose a shadow of the monkey’s tail from the bushes is quite enough for them to identify.

While the monkeys have ear notches and tattoos to aid researchers in recognizing individuals, it was the constant interaction with the macaques that allowed us to identify individuals. Anything particular and unique of each monkey became more noticeable. The scars, which were previously absent from my gaze, became primordial signposts for monkey identity along with other distinguishing characteristics like color of pelage, brow shape, crest shape, injuries, etc. Our little names for the monkeys also helped in many ways, perhaps because by anthropomorphizing, we render their traits comprehensible to our human experience. For example, I named one monkey Andy Garcia because his eyes droop, making him look like a guilt-ridden macaque mafiosi. Another was named as The Grinch because her face is similar to that classic Dr. Seuss character. There is one we call Feets because he has an extra set of toes jutting out of his left foot.

As the days went by, we moved from recognizing appearances to sensing individual temperaments. Similar to their human cousins, every monkey is an individual in their own right. One old male monkey, Leaf Boy, caught our attention because of his penchant for sticking a leaf under his upper lip. He would go around the island walking with a leaf dangling from his mouth. It does not matter what kind of leaf it is as long as it hangs there. Admittedly, he looks pretty cool with it (in the human sense, that is). But the youngsters haven’t quite got the hang of it. So this leaf habit might end with him. Another is Pinocchio–he got his name from an old nasal injury–who is the only monkey on the island  able to figure out how to open a coconut. He would unhusk the coconut, throw it up in the air repeatedly until the nut cracks. This behavior too has not caught on with the troop.

Right now, we are recording each individual’s behaviors in the Psion. Hopefully, our effort will contribute more to the understanding of this species.

**note: all images are taken from various websites.


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