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This is the year of the monkey! Way back during the Chinese New Year, I promised to celebrate the primates—that intelligent and nimble (and malicious) order of mammals.  Since then, primates have made the news (literally, since it is our invention), but where have the posts been?

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(the malefactor crouched on an electric thingy)

Well yesterday, June 7th 2016, a vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) fell onto a power transformer at the Gitaru hydroelectric power station in Kenya.  The transformer tripped off, which led to a cascading sequence of generators shutting down–which, by some dark magic of electric grids, caused a nation-wide blackout.  Kenya, a nation of 44 million souls was without electricity for fifteen minutes (and the juice was out much longer near the epicenter of the problem).  A monkey turned off the world’s 31st most populous nation for a quarter of an hour!  The malefactor survived this mayhem and has been taken into custody by Kenya wildlife services—no news on what sort of community service they have planned for the mischievous creature.\

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The vervet monkey is a generalist vegetarian which eats fruit, berries, grains, flowers, seeds, and vegetables (in addition to eggs and small animals when they are available).  Adult vervets weigh between 3.5 and 8 kilograms (7.7 and 17.7 pounds).  They have a long tail which is not prehensile and grizzled dun and gray coats which fade to white collars around their black faces.  That description makes them sound somewhat monochromatic, however they are among the most brilliantly colored primates…in certain respects: adult males have magnificent turquoise scrotums and vivid incarnadine genitalia.  Speaking of procreation, vervet monkeys give birth to a single infant which can live up to 24 years (in captivity).

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Vervet monkeys are trapped as pets, poisoned as pests, and hunted for meat by humans, even though primatologists (and anthropologists) have noted profound social similarities between our species.  Vervet monkeys are capable of complex communication (including self-serving lies) and they build complicated webs of alliances and enmities.  The Wikipedia page says they are also one of the few animals capable of spite (which suggests that Wikipedia has limited experience of living creatures), however it would go a long way towards explaining yesterday’s events in Kenya.

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Masters of Purest Spite?

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DeBrazza’s monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus) Photo by In Cherl Kim

So far, Primate Week has been a huge success! The Year of the Fire Monkey has featured the loudest land animal, the immortal magician monkey god, and the disconcerting calculus of Dunbar’s number. There is still another topic which I wanted to address—an important primate post which I have planned to write for a long time–but it is almost midnight on Friday night, so I am going to bunt with a quick gallery post about color. Last week I wrote a piece about humankind’s love for the color red. I blithely assured everyone that primates are the most colorful mammals…however I didn’t back that up with any images.

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Northern owl monkey (Aotus trivirgatus) photo by Mogens Trolle

Therefore, here are some beautifully colorful primates. I am only listing the species and the source (where available) so that you can revel in the beautiful color of these monkeys. If you want to learn what these colors betoken and how each species evolved such lovely patterns, you will have to look elsewhere. I have done my best to label each picture, but the WordPress function which allows a a blog’s creator to label images has been broken a long time (at least for the template I use). If you have any questions, just ask in the comments!

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The mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx)

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The Golden Langur (Trachypithecus geei)

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The golden snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana)

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Emperor Tamarin (Saguinus imperator)

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Bald-headed uakari (Cacajao calvus) photo by Luis Louro

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Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey (Procolobus kirkii) Olivier Lejade

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Golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia)

 

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It is a pretty intense rainbow! Look at how expressive their faces are. It is possible to read the personality of each monkey. Some of them remind of acquaintances from secondary school or world leaders, but of course we humans are not quite so colorful. Still we can pull off a mean combination of orange pink and brown in our own right. We also change colors somewhat when we are aroused, angry, or afraid! Colorful mammals indeed!

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Human (Homo Sapiens) photo by Luis Aragon

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There are four great masterpieces of classical Chinese literature (or possibly five, if you count erotic fiction…but that is a story for another day). The most fantastical and supernatural of these four masterpieces is The Journey to the West…and the indelible hero of The Journey to the West is a monkey, Sun Wukong AKA the Great Sage equal to Heaven AKA Pilgrim Sun AKA the Monkey King (classical Chinese literature has a lot of sobriquets).

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At the beginning of the story a vast round stone boulder sits atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (a paradisiacal mountain island off the coast of China). Warmed by the sun and caressed by the wind since the beginning of time, the granite egg cracks open and Sun Wukong emerges, a fierce clever monkey made of obdurate stone. Immediately after emerging from this egg, golden beams shoot from his eyes which are visible throughout the firmament (a harbinger of the monkey’s future).

Sun devotes himself to mastering Taoist magic (eating sacred fruits, drinking elixers, collecting magical items and learning spells). He becomes king of the monkeys and starts to participate in the wider affairs of the world…but as a demonic monster who eats people and kills for fun. When he learns of the splendors of heaven and the power of the Jade Emperor (the Celestial monarch at the center of a vast spiritual bureaucracy) he decides to make himself into a deity and hilarious, horrifying chaos ensues.

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But all of that is backstory. In the story proper, Sun has grown up. His attempt to overthrow the cosmic order is behind him…mostly…and he has devoted himself to self-mastery. With a bit of (coercive) help from Kuan Yin he has transformed his personality. The chaotic animal demon who killed innumerable people with dark magic has become an ascetic Buddhist monk and he has a difficult assignment: take care of a pathetic weakling (human) monk in a seemingly endless journey across monster-haunted wilds of mythical Asia. Along the way the monk (the spirit) and the monkey (the mind) are joined by a pig god (the appetites) and Sandy, a river monster (???). It’s like a twisted cross between Kung Fu, Pixa, and Homer.

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That is a sort of book-report blurb about an epic which is really an allegory of Buddhist virtues. The monkey king’s Taoist powers mirror the intellect: he has godlike powers of transformation, apprehension, and trickery, but these are of no use without more subtle virtues. The search for these elusive strengths is the real Journey to the West. The story has shaped Chinese cosmology and mythology ever since the book came out in the Ming Dynasty. Since then Monkey has been kind of an actual religious figure…but one who has moments where he is more like Bugs Bunny or Charlie Chaplin than like Jesus or Kuan Yin.

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This all sounds ridiculous—and it is. The juxtaposition of high-minded religious philosophy and low comic hijinks has made the Monkey King universally known in China. There is a deeper reason for this popularity: reality itself is a ridiculous mix of cerebral, noble, and profane elements. The monkey king is a fine mirror for our own madcap primate attempts to reconcile these incompatible impulses.

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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?

 

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Happy Chinese New Year! It is year 4713! The Year of the Fire Monkey. Monkeys are intelligent and clever but mercurial and swift. Our in-house oracle thus prognosticates that this year will be intense and intellectual…yet scattered and jumpy (and, it goes without saying, that it will rush by swiftly). 2016…er….4713 is therefore a good year for fresh starts and running leaps. However scrying is not really this blog’s metier: let’s talk about monkeys!

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One of Ferrebeekeeper’s favorite and best topics is mammals, however I have (largely) avoided writing about primates. This is not because I dislike primates (although some species of monkeys and apes dwell in the uncanny valley where they are simultaneously so human and yet inhuman that the effect is deeply disconcerting), but because primates are very difficult to write about. Not only are they generalists who make their living through a wide range of complex behaviors, they also have elaborate social lives which require attention, sympathy and discernment to understand and present. Even primate taxonomy is complicated. There is a great divide between prosimians and anthropoids (which is now being reconceived as a divide between wet-nosed primates (non-tarsier prosimians) and the dry-nosed primates). There is a great geographic divide between New World and Old World Primates. There are 72 genera and hundreds of species–and that is only the ones that are extant—I am leaving out the extinct fossils.

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Primates have a similarly complex place in society, art, and mythology. Just look at Sun Wukong AKA Monkey King, the trickster god of classical Chinese mythology who is simultaneously Buddhist and animist, wicked and saintly, immense and infinitesimally miniscule. The Indian monkey god Hanuman is similarly protean and complex. And these are only the two monkey gods…the nimble arboreal creatures are found everywhere in religion, literature, and art.

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Finally, and above all, we..the readers and the writer…are primates. When the silverback from marketing comes by and harasses the trapped office women before displaying his dominance by making me move his stupid credenza around, I tell myself it is just the world economy. That may be true, but it is really all stupid monkeyshines. History is an intricate tapestry of primates desperately contending for privileged status. Here in America we are seeing lots of primate behavior—after all, it is an election year, and primates are ferociously hierarchical and tribal. Primates are also stupendously aggressive. Sometimes this trait combines with that big brain to make for horrendous violence. We are going to start unpacking some of this throughout the remainder of this week, which I dub “Primate Week” in honor of the fire monkey.

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Dusky leaf monkey, Trachypithecus obscurus - Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand. Photo by Thai National Parks.

Dusky leaf monkey, Trachypithecus obscurus – Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand. Photo by Thai National Parks.

I have been wanting to expand Ferrebeekeeper’s “mammals” categories by writing more about primates…but primates are really close cousins.  They are so near to us on the tree of life that it is tricky to write about them.  Monkeys and apes venture into the uncanny valley…that uneasy psychological chasm that contains things that are very much like humans, but clearly are not humans.

The Dusky leaf monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus)

The Dusky leaf monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus)

Therefore, in order to ease us into the subject of primatology, I am going to start with the spectacled langur aka dusky leaf monkey (or, more properly Trachypithecus obscurus).  This is a beautiful langur which lives in the dense rainforests of Malaysia, Burma, and Thailand, but realtively little seems to be known about the creatures. Adult male dusky leaf monkeys weighs approximately 8.3 kilograms (18 pounds). Females are somewhat smaller.  The monkeys live in troops of about ten or a dozen and they subsist on a variety of tropical fruits and nuts (supplemented perhaps occasionally with other vegetables or small animals).  Infants are born orange, but quickly turn dark gray with the distinctive “spectacles” for which the species in known. I don’t really have a great deal of information about these monkeys, but I am blogging about them anyway because they are adorable!  Just look at these young langurs.  This is exactly the sort of cute introduction which we need to get us started on the topic of primates.  We will work on the serious grim monkeys later!

Dusky Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus) photo by Petfles

Dusky Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus) photo by Petfles

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The 2016 Rio Olympics are on their way and already the mascots for the 2016 games have been presented and named!  Ferrebeekeeper has been falling down at monitoring mascot news—the winning candidates were chosen back in November of 2014 (whipping up PR stories for a sports competition which is years away is a long & delicate art).

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The 2012 Olympics in London featured stupid avant-garde alien blobs Wenlock and Mandeville who were rightly pilloried by everyone (including this blog).  The 2014 Russian Olympics featured a mascot election which Vladimir Putin may have tampered with!  So what did Brazil come up with for the big game?  The nation is beloved for its beaches, beautiful mixed-race populace, and, above all, for the unrivaled biodiversity of the Amazon Basin—where the world’s largest river runs through the planet’s greatest rainforest.  Less admirable features of Brazil include deeply corrupt demagogues, insane crime, irrational love of soccer (which is a sort of agonizingly slow version of hockey), and an underperforming economic sector which has always been 20 years away from greatness.  What cartoon figure appropriately represents these dramatic juxtapositions?

2016 Rio Olympics Mascots

2016 Rio Olympics Mascots

This blog wanted a tropical armored catfish to win. Barring that, we were hoping for a beautiful Amazon riverine creature of some sort—maybe a river dolphin, a giant otter, or even a pretty toucan.  However, the committee which came up with the mascots did not want anything quite so tangible.  Instead they chose two magical animal beings which respectively represent the fauna and flora of Brazil.  Fortunately, the mascots are pretty cute (and they are both painted with a bewitching array of tropical colors).

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The Olympic mascot represents the multitudinous animals of the rainforest and his name is “Vinicius.”  Vinicius is some sort of flying monkey-cat with rainbow colored fur and a prehensile tail.  The Paralympic mascot is a sort of artichoke-looking sentient vegetable named Tom (so I guess he is male too—although, names aside, it is sometimes hard to tell with plants).

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Vinicius’ long sinuous limbs and tail make him admirably suited for illustrating the many different Olympics sports—and I really like pictures of him shooting archery, running, and lifting weights.  Tom seems a bit less suited for athletics, but his winning smile and endearing fronds are appealing in their own right.  I guess I am happy with the choice of Olympics mascots.  They do a fine job representing the world’s fifth most populous country (in so much as cartoon nature spirits can represent a place so large and diverse).  I’m looking forward to seeing more of them (even if I might dream sometimes of what could have been instead).

Proposed 2016 Olympics Mascots--a piranha and anteater!

Proposed 2016 Olympics Mascots–a piranha and anteater!

 

A gray-tufted monkey traveled to the edge of space according to Iranian media

A gray-tufted monkey traveled to the edge of space according to Iranian media

Today’s post concerns various contemporary news items regarding outer space.  At first this list may seem like a bit of a mash-up, but it all comes together as a very specific polemical point.

This year has already featured a lot of space news, but, sadly, most of it seems like it could have come from the 1950s. Iran launched a monkey to the edge of outer space. South Korea placed its first satellite in orbit (which seems like a response to North Korea doing the same thing last year).

South Korea's rocket lifts off from its launch pad at the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Korea

South Korea’s rocket lifts off from its launch pad at the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Korea

In US space news, the 27th anniversary of the Challenger disaster came and went (that was an epically bad day in 6th grade–which was hardly a picnic anyway).  Additionally, America announced that its biggest space plans for the near future include landing a redundant lander on Mars which was not exactly what NASA wanted but it fit the budget and was politically expedient.  Our not-very-exciting work on our not-very-exciting next generation rockets continues slowly.

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Finally, in other space-related news, paleontologists discovered that a massive space event apparently bombarded the Earth with Gamma rays in the 8th century.  Astronomers speculate that two neutron stars might have collided!  Also on February 15th a 50 meter asteroid will narrowly miss the Earth (flying by closer than many of our communication satellites).

All of this paints a rather alarming picture of a turbulent and dangerous universe where catastrophic events can occur with little notice.  Meanwhile on Earth dangerous rogue nations (not you, South Korea, we like your style) are venturing into strategically important low Earth orbit.  NASA’s current large-scale projects are lackluster (although its robotic exploration of the solar system continues to be exemplary).  Are we discarding our leadership position in space because of debt, political paralysis, and complacency?  It certainly seems like it…

Today, October 27th, 2012, the top news story here on the East Coast is the possible trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, a large tropical cyclone which is projected to make landfall somewhere between southern New Jersey and New England next week.  However the storm itself is not the point of this post.  Instead I am fascinated by the name “Sandy” because–thanks to a coincidence of timing and translation, that name has been much in front of me lately—but not as the name of a human female.  Instead “Sandy” is the name an inhuman water monster from Chinese mythology.  The monster is a horrifying cannibal, true, but also a strangely put-upon functionary, and then later a devout Buddhist.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me explain.

Shā Wùjìng carrying the luggage

Sandy is one of the main characters of The Journey to the West, which is the most fantastical of China’s four great classical novels  (four epic works of pre-modern fiction, which scholars regard as the most influential works of literature from that great and ancient nation).  The Journey to the West tells the supernatural deeds of four pilgrims traveling from the court of Emperor Taizong in China  to India in order to obtain the  Lotus Sutra (actually there are five pilgrims, but one is a young dragon who has shapeshifted into a horse, and he seldom leaves horse-form).     The main thrust of the story concerns Golden Cicada (a devout Buddhist priest) trying to control Monkey (a primeval trickster god) and Pig (a monstrous animal spirit whose appetite and bumbling antics provide comic relief).  Monkey is nearly omnipotent and exceedingly clever.  The fourth pilgrim, Sandy (or Shā Wùjìng) is a sort of river ogre who acts as the stolid straight man for the antics of monkey and pig.

The Pilgrim Protagonists of Journey to the West

Together these characters face a host of scheming antagonists while trying to work within the baffling framework of the sprawling bureaucracy of China’s pantheon (this list of the book’s characters will give you a sense of the scope of this plot).   The party is aided by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion who swoops in to extricate them when they really screw up.

One of the first monsters the monk, the monkey, and the pig encounter is Shā Wùjìng, who has a backstory which illustrate the dangers of the celestial court.  Shā Wùjìng was once a general in heaven, where his task was to occasionally lift a special curtain for the Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven).  Unfortunately, in a fit of clumsiness, the hapless general accidentally broke one of the Jade Emperor’s favorite vases and incurred divine disfavor.  He was flogged with eight hundred lashes and his form was corrupted into that of a hideous monster with indigo skin, a blood red beard and razor teeth.  Then he was exiled to the desert.

Understandably, Shā Wùjìng was upset at this fall from grace.  He began to haunt the Kaidu River which flows through the arid wastes of Xinjiang.  Every day the Jade Emperor would send seven flying swords to flay open the hapless monster’s chest (the chief god was apparently really fond of that broken vase).  To avoid these swords Shā Wùjìng would hide in the sandy river bottom to the extent that he came to identify himself as “Sandy”.  Because the desert was empty of resources, Sandy began to prey on the silk caravans heading west to Central Asia and India.  In the medieval Chinese worldview, merchants are terrible people of no consequence so there were no repercussions for killing and eating them, but one day Shā Wùjìng unwisely ate a party of holy Buddhist monks who were going to India to visit the sacred lands of Shakyamuni.   The skulls of the holy men float on the river, so Sandy fashions them into a necklace which, along with his monk’s spade (a combination of polearm /bludgeon) are his trademark items.

Shā Wùjìng (Sandy) fights Pig (Zhu Bajie)

In the same manner he ate the earlier party of pilgrims, Sandy attempted to eat Golden Cicada, however monkey and pig easily prevented him from doing so (pig even bestirring himself for an epic battle beneath the river).  Thereafter Shā Wùjìng himself took up the burden of pilgrimage and he is one of the most loyal and dependable character in the book (although he is less strong than monkey and pig).  Of the three monster spirits he is by far the most tractable.

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