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It is the year of the fire monkey! Let’s celebrate with some magnificent screaming monkeys from Central and South America. These monkeys are loud–really loud. They are louder than Rush Limbaugh or heavy machinery–so loud that, in fact, that they are generally regarded as the loudest of all land animals. I am talking, of course, about the howler monkeys. These fifteen species make up the genus Alouatta (which lies within the family Atelidae ). They are new world monkeys ranging from the top of Central America down through South America to Uruguay.

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Howler monkeys have short snouts with keen noses (they are capable of smelling their favorite fruits and leaves from 2km away). Depending on the species and gender they range from 56 to 92 cm (22 to 36 in) in height or length…or whatever primary dimension you attribute to monkeys. This measurement does not include their tails which can be up to 5 times the length of their body. They weigh 7 to 10 kg (15 to 22 lbs) and live up to 20 years. Howler monkeys are folivore–they mostly eat leaves. This diet is widely available but it is hard to digest–which means howler monkeys are larger and slower than other New World monkeys (although they supplement their diets with fruit and eggs when they can).

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The hyoid bones of howler monkeys are pneumatized–which is to say that the u-shaped bone in the monkey’s neck contains air. Outside of the dinosaurs and their descendants, pneumatized bones are exceedingly rare. The hyoid bone anchors the tongue and the larynx and allows for vocalization. The fact that it is specialized in howler monkeys is one of the factors which allows them to vocalize with such ferocious power. There is an inverse relation between the size of the hyoid bone and the size of the male’s testes. This seemingly random fact is actually a key factor in howler society.

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Howler monkey lifestyle diverge into two very different ways of living (except for mantled howler monkeys which live together in large groups and behave somewhat differently than the other 14 species). In one model, a male, who has a larger hyoid, and smaller testes gathers a group of females together with his majestic singing (screaming?) voice and he mates with them exclusively like a sultan with his harem. In the other model several males mate with a group of several females. Seemingly, this free love model requires less loud singing and more gonad mass.

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At this point you are probably wondering a great deal about the howler monkey song. What is this primal howl which female monkeys prefer over carnal joy? Musical enthusiasts have compared the baritone shout of the male monkeys to a Gregorian chant, a monstrous belch, or a demonic snowplow.  All of these comparisons have some validity…but the sound is so much richer than that.  Why don’t you have a listen (at 1:23) and let us what you think?

 

National Museum of American History

National Museum of American History

The other day I was chatting with a friend about my long-ago job as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian history museum and we began to muse about what the quintessential artifacts of today will someday be. When historians of the future try to represent our time will they display a bunch of obsolete computer kit (which can not be made to works after a couple of years—much less decades or centuries), or Britney Spears memorabilia, or Segue scooters, or “as seen on TV” junk like salad shooters and such? What is the quintessential object which shows who we are and how we live? We came up with all sorts of answers—most of which did not paint contemporary culture in a wholly positive light—but the one which struck me as the truest was the simple disposable air horn.

An Air Horn

An Air Horn

An air horn is a plastic noisemaking reed attached to a jar of compressed air. When the player (possessor?) presses a button, the infernal device issues a hellish shriek of ear-piercing volume. I do not mean that last descriptor as a metaphor: air horns, like firearms and jet engines, are very capable of causing serious irreparable hearing damage. These horrid novelty items are available everywhere for next to nothing. People use them at sporting contests to distract the opposing team or sometimes in cruel pranks to make an unwitting victim panic. Mostly they are just used to call attention to the loutish person with the horn. Air horns have only one note, but that note is so loud it drowns everything else out—a perfect description of today’s celebrity personalities, advertising tactics, and political discourse.

Air horns evolved from the whistles of trains and the mighty horns of ships. These horns used compressed gasses from engine function in order to warn of eminent departure or collision. They had a real purpose. Yet, while it is possible that Alfred Hitchcock or Tom Clancy (or some other master of contrived suspense) could invent a scenario where a disposable air horn saved the day, I doubt it has ever happened. These objects exist only to make insufferably loud noise. If someone on the street was blowing one to warn of North Koreans, Godzilla, or zombie attack I would ignore it in the belief that it was just some drunken oaf showing off.

or we could just rename it the "fun horn"

or we could just rename it the “fun horn”

Worst of all, I think an air horn speaks directly to the reptile/Kardashian part of the brain which lurks in us all. I do not like air horns, but if someone gave me one I would be fascinated by it and would want to push it. It would sit there menacingly, like Chekov’s gun, just waiting till I could resist no longer and gave it a tiny test. I wish it were not so, but I would have to push it, despite the deleterious effect it would have on my personal relationships and happiness. Because they bear this unwholesome power, I would be shocked if air horns do not end up in a “late 20th/early 21st century” display case highlighting the nature of our times. They will sit there with other loud self-aggrandizing artifacts like Nascar jerseys, Jeff Koons art, MySpace, and Kanye West.

"I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice."

“I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice.”  [Actual Quote]

Air horns do indeed draw attention to us and tell everyone exactly who we are. It is a very well-made item—at least until someone invents something even louder and more annoying.   Or you could ignore my cranky jeremiad and write to tell me what you would choose as the quintessential object of this age!

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