Thursday, October 15, 2009

Monkey Lady

I've been collaborating with a professor at Nanyang Technological University on long-tailed macaque research. We've been focusing specifically on one group of macaques at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, so I've really come to know these monkeys. I spend a few days a week following them around the jungle, taking photographs and getting familiar with their behaviors and their movement patterns. They do a lot of moving around to get food from different food sources- jackfruit trees, durian trees, grubs from underneath rotting logs, and food that they pilfer from people. Right now I'm working on identifying all of the juveniles (the adults are already identified) so that when I start collecting data I'll know who they all are. The project that I'm planning involves examining the macaques' facial expressions (like fear grimaces) and what they mean- when the facial expressions occur, how other monkeys respond to them, how often they occur, etc. In grad school I did research on human facial expressions, so this is an interesting continuation. The photo on the left is one of the babies. The babies (like the one on the left) are extra cute- they have black coats and generally look like little old men.
Over time, I've really gotten close with the monkeys. I know their personalities now- Sidious is cranky, Camille is a sweetheart, Punk is fearless, and Stumpy is mean- and their physical characteristics- Catherine's broken hand, Stumpy's short tail, Fang's snaggle tooth and cataract, and Nad's rotund shape. They're used to having me around, and some of them, especially the juveniles, will come right up to me. The first day that I looked down and saw one of them chewing on my shoelace, I was pretty surprised. I try not to let them get too close to me- I don't want them getting any more comfortable with humans than they already are, because it can be bad for them- but sometimes when I get engrossed in taking pictures or watching a particularly interesting interaction, the little ones sneak up on me- trying to open my backpack, chewing on my pants, tugging on my shoelaces, and one day even swiping the bug spray right out of the side pocket on my backpack (it was a stupid place to put it, I had left it there after a weekend trip that didn't involve being around monkeys). Little Punk is below, chewing on my pants after I crouched down to take some photos of another juvenile. The group of monkeys is large- 26 adults, 10 infants and more than 20 juveniles. Usually long-tailed macaque groups don't get this large, so these guys are a little unusual. It's hard to learn to identify them all, but I'm slowly getting it down. There are now monkeys named after my family- little Nancy, Charles, Craig, and Kevin- all of them adorable, and of course a little Bryan, so named because he has a heart-shaped white patch above his eyes (the picture on the right is him).There is always something going on with the monkeys. The juveniles are really rambunctious and do a lot of playing- wrestling and running and swinging through the trees. The females are interesting, because they all want to touch the infants. So a mother with an infant is often groomed by other female monkeys in return for letting them touch her infant. Sometimes a greedy female will try to steal the infant away from here mother, which can result in a chaotic scene, with the mother clinging on to her baby, another monkey yanking on the baby's legs, and the baby screaming in the middle. This particular group of monkeys is experiencing a baby boom right now, with 10 infants.

Some days with the monkeys are sad. I've gotten attached to them, so it's always hard to see something bad happen to them. Not too long ago, Catherine (the monkey with the broken hand; there's actually a picture of her posted elsewhere on the blog, sitting on top of a truck with her baby) was carrying an infant. I was happy to see that she was a great mom and was very attentive to her baby. Then one day I caught up with the monkeys and her baby was paralyzed from the waist down. Catherine was still vigilantly caring for the baby and the baby was doing its best to hold on to her without the use of its legs. Each day that I returned, I was shocked to see that the infant had survived another night, but one day I came back and the infant was gone. Catherine seemed despondent, making sad little honking sounds and always looking around. It was really heartbreaking, but it wasn't the first sad story for the monkeys. Two days later I found a tiny infant dead, probably stillborn, under a tree that they frequently use. Then Charles, a little juvenile, got a serious limp; Michelle had an infant that disappeared one day, and one of the adult females, Iris, also disappeared. It appears that life as a wild monkey is far from easy. (To the right is Stumpy, #2 in the male dominance hierarchy. This is his intimidation face. Scary stuff- males have huge, vicious-looking canines).

Of course, the monkeys have fun too. They seem to particularly enjoy trying to steal food from people- chasing people carrying plastic bags, which they have learned often contain food, and raiding garbage bins and dumpsters. I've also seen some of them peeking into the windows of the apartments near the nature reserve (below is Fang checking things out). They like to swim too, and the juveniles really seem to relish terrorizing the squirrels. Like I said- never a dull moment.
It's taking a while to identify all these juveniles- it's hard to pick out their differences when they're all running around non-stop. But in the meanwhile, it's pretty fun to hang out with them!

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