Anthropology 101: Zoo Project – Growing Up Monkey

Growing Up Monkey

“Are we there yet?” The universal cry of the bored human child, eager to get on with the next event in their exciting lives. But boredom is not a trait solely experienced by human primates – non-human primates likewise experience the eagerness of youth and the boundless energy it brings – as well as the boredom that is experienced when your caregivers refuse to allow you what you feel you need most: time and ability to simply DO something. Silver Langur monkeys are no exception to this rule.

Silver Langurs are medium sized monkeys with long, non-prehensile tails. The adults are black or gray-black. However, the young are an interesting contrast – from birth until five months old, their fur is a bright orange color. In the wild, Silver Langurs are found throughout Borneo and Sumatra, as well as the Natuna Islands. The species favors a habitat of mangrove swamps and forested regions, though it does not travel very far from coasts and rivers – perhaps enjoying the “beach” lifestyle. These Old World Monkeys are specialist folivores, and in fact have a higher amount of leaves in their diet than any other monkey of the subfamily Colobinae, also known as the colobine monkeys. This subfamily also includes the Colobus monkeys, Litungs, and the odd looking Proboscis monkey.

Silver Langurs are diurnal, making them ideal candidates for my Observation Analysis during the Zoo Trip. In the wild, they live in large groups of up to 40 individuals, usually in a harem setting – one male, many females. Females remain in the group for life, but males tend to leave shortly after reaching maturity. Though they exhibit a low level of aggression compared to other primates, they still possess a strong dominance hierarchy, with the males dominating the females and females with young dominating females without.  Though common in the wild, they are classified as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and are listed under Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) due to a habitat threatened by logging and the oil industry, in addition to being hunted for meat and the pet trade.

I chose the Silver Langurs for my Observational Analysis because during my five minute observation of them, I became entranced by watching the little three month old baby and his repeated attempts to get his mother to just DO something. He was entertaining, and therefore I settled in to watch him and his family group. There were five Langurs total in the cage – the baby, the mother, and 3 other adults. I couldn’t immediately determine the sex of the other individuals, but over time I came to guess that the one with the grey tipped hairs, referred to in my notes as the number One (1), was probably the male in the group, as all others appeared to defer to him and allow him to get his pick of the food first, when the keeper brought it. He mostly kept to himself, and when my observation started he was grooming himself.

The primary subjects of my observation were the mother (M) and the baby (B). They started out on a ledge with the other two females in the enclosure (“2” and “3” in my notes). B began to get a little restless, and began climbing nearby branches while M, 2, and 3 ate what appeared to be spinach leaves and 2 & 3 groomed each other a bit. M kept her eyes on B, even while her attention was momentarily captured by her need to groom herself. This tableau continued for the first five minutes of my observation. I noticed that B would go a certain distance away (about three of M’s body lengths), and then would come back – however, this only applied in the horizontal or vertical directions. B never went lower than M on the ledge. Perhaps to better allow her to keep him in sight?

Around fifteen minutes into the observation, I noticed a keeper entering the enclosure next to the one I was watching, and putting out food. I deduced that perhaps my Langurs would be next on the list to feed, and moved myself to a better vantage point to watch that interaction. It wasn’t long before the Langurs noticed the keeper as well. There was a flurry of activity as 1, 2, and 3 made their way to the back of the enclosure, 2 doing this by way of swinging on a rope from the front to the back of the cage. M and B followed, but not until M managed to get a fidgety B to hang on to her stomach so she could head for the back of the enclosure.

The keeper put out the food, and all of them began to eat what looked like leaves with a bit of fruit (apples?) mixed in. B quickly seemed to tire of this, though, and went running back toward where he’d been playing before. He got a bit further away from M than he was comfortable with, though, and turned around, let out a barking cry, and went shooting back to his mother’s side. Only then did he sit down to actually eat.

The adults continued eating for some time, but it wasn’t long before B’s boredom began to show through again. He climbed the wall in front of M, turned around and grabbed her head with his feet, shaking her a little bit as if to say “please, DO something with me!” M pushed his legs away and continued to eat. B took off running around the walls and feeding ledge, seemingly hoping to be chased, but when no one followed him, he returned to his mother’s side and began to pull at her fur. She responded by pulling him to her and grooming him. He pulled away, climbed the walls, but always returned to his mother’s side. At the end of my observation, 1, 2 & 3 were still feeding, and M was grooming B, who was still valiantly attempting to get her to play with him.

The most common observed behaviors were grooming and eating, though the interaction between M and B was adorable and fascinating. The biggest problem I encountered during the observation was that the feeding platform was at the back of the enclosure and I had no way to get around the cage to get a better look at what was going on. My eyes are not the best, and I eventually wound up using the zoom lens on my camera to watch most of what happened after the keeper brought the food in. I don’t think this exact problem would be encountered in the wild as I would be in more of a position to change my location to fit my observational needs – however, distance might still be a problem if the primates didn’t like humans and were keeping their distance. Perhaps a good pair of binoculars would solve this issue.

The only discrepancy between the information I read and what I observed occurred while I was watching them eat. I did not read that Langurs ate fruit, so when I saw them eating what I think were apples, it surprised me as I thought they were strict folivores. However, I imagine the keepers at the zoo know what they’re doing, giving them fruit, so I didn’t worry too much.

Overall, I enjoyed the Zoo Project. I had only been to the Santa Ana Zoo once before, and it was four years ago. My impression at the time should give a good idea of how Anthropology has changed my mindset – my biggest observation about the zoo was an exasperated, “It’s all freaking MONKEYS.” Where were the lions, the tigers? The “interesting” animals? They didn’t even have any wolves! However, now, having taken Physical Anthropology and the associated Lab, I was fascinated by the very creatures that only four years earlier, I’d been annoyed to find comprised the majority of the exhibits at the zoo. I greatly enjoyed observing the Golden Lion Tamarins and their interaction with a Guinea Fowl that was wandering around outside their enclosure. The Langurs turned out to be very interesting, and the baby was adorable. Watching all the primates interacting and moving around has made it easier for me to envision flesh on the bones we’ve been studying in class. In other words, the project as a whole has greatly helped my understanding and appreciation of primates and primate behavior.

As a final example of how much this class has changed my thinking, I visited the gift shop at the end of the trip. I wanted to get something to remember the trip by – perhaps a little plush baby Langur. However, they didn’t have any merchandise with the baby represented, so what I wound up with was a plush of what I believed to have been the female gibbon – the light colored one. She is sitting on my desk as I type this up as a reminder that I will never again find primates boring, and to remind me that our closest relatives are every bit as fascinating as any canine, feline, reptile, or bird that have ever lived on this planet.