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We are swiftly coming up to the United States election and Ferrebeekeeper needs to endorse a candidate. You can probably already guess whether I will endorse the competent and hard-working patriot (the one who is admittedly very ambitious and bit sloppy with finicky data protocols) or the unhinged con-artist who is not only an ignoramus, a bully, and a bigot, but poses an existential threat to the republic itself. However, before we get around to making this difficult choice (and, maybe…finally reaching an end to this ghastly and divisive national contest) we need to think about primatology.

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Specifically there was an experiment conducted by primatologist Frans de Waal with some capuchin monkeys to understand social behavior and social cognition in primate groups.  In the experiment, the capuchins (who are exceedingly bright characters) were asked to do a small task in exchange for a food reward while the other monkeys watched the exchange.  Some monkeys were given grapes…which capuchins love.  Others were given little slivers of cucumber (a far less valuable treat) for completing the same task.

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Not surprisingly, monkeys who watched a different monkey do the same task for a much better reward flew into a rage. They hurled their cucumber away and banged on their plexiglass enclosures and shook their little bars and sulked.

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Now, a tiny sliver of cucumber is not a valueless thing for a monkey who spends all day being tortured by scientists and fed bland monkey chow. Probably the rational thing to do would be to take the cucumber and kiss the cruel scientists’ hand and call it a day (then quietly wait for a chance to rise up, bite some faces off, and enslave Charlton Heston).

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But if you were a monkey and reacted with apparent docility to unfair treatment, who knows how you would be taken advantage of next? It wouldn’t just be primatologists who took advantage of you, soon enough your fellow monkeys would too.

What is truly important to social animals is status: this intangible commodity is fungible and it is pegged to a highly complex and immediate relative framework. A cucumber slice, though fine in its own right confers less status than a prestigious grape.  To throw it away and freak out makes sense to capuchin monkeys because larger issues are on the line (even if they are apparently hurting themselves in the short term).  Spite matters for monkeys: it is one way that monkeys can mess with more powerful entities and protest the unfair allocation of resources and rewards.

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Again and again the question arises among the people I know in New York of how anyone could be taken in by an illiterate orange charlatan with a pronounced tendency to molest woman, steal from workers, and cheat on taxes.   Maybe some people truly believe in Donald Trump, but I believe for a larger number of people in the middle of the country he is neither the grape nor the cucumber: Trump is the act of throwing the cucumber away.  High status monkeys should take note and make some immediate changes, but I suspect they will only hide their equities in the Cayman Islands and buy bigger Bentleys. Primates are not great at solving social hierarchy problems without lots of shrieking, biting, and shit-throwing.

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Eco-tourism is a valuable way for communities which are close to magnificent wildlife to monetize (and protect) that wildlife.  Except, every one and a while, things go wrong.  An example of this is the community of Xianfeng, a village in central Sichuan Province, which suffered a bit of a mishap as it attempted to become a world-class environmental destination. Here is what happened: a few years ago, villagers decided that they could become a beloved tourism destination if the macaques which lived in the nearby mountain forests were adorably living in town.  So they lured a group of monkeys back to Xianfeng with food and treats. Investors paid to cosset the monkeys, and a few tourists started to show up.

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Things seemed bright until the investor died and his plans and schemes for popularizing the town went with him.  However the monkeys did NOT vanish (or head back into the jungle).  They acquired a taste for town life and no amount of luring (or humane trapping) has been able to convince them to leave.  The year of the fire monkey has extra significance in Xianfeng, a town where 600 macaques are continuously squabbling and stealing things and disrupting every activity. The macaques are protected by Chinese law, so there isn’t much the villagers can do to take their town back without incurring the formidable wrath of the state.

It is an unhappy tale about 2 sorts of primates and how greedy and short-sighted they can be, but the town really does look cantankerous and fun!

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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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Red-shanked douc (Pygathrix nemaeus)
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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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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The Flower of Chiranthodendron pentadactylon

The Devil’s Hand Tree (Chiranthodendron pentadactylon) is an unusual evergreen tree from the cloud forests of Central America (Guatemala and Mexico).  The tree grows up to 12 meters (40 feet) tall and has distinctive oversized leaves with ruddy metallic veins and fuzzy undersides.

Chiranthodendron is Greek for “hand-flowering tree” and pentadactylon means five fingered (which makes this tree sound like a grabby pterosaur or an early fish).  There is good reason for the name though—as the common name indicates the distinctive flowers of this tropical tree look like demon hands.  The five blood red stamens are shaped like clawed fingers–each of which has a double row of saffron yellow pollen running along it. As the flowers fade they curl into claws.

The pollinators of the tree are nectar sipping bats and perching birds (particularly orioles) which drink sweet nectar from the bowl-like petals beneath the stamen “claw.”  Once the flower is fertilized it forms an extremely hard seed.

The tree was apparently revered by the Aztecs who knew it from a single grand specimen which grew alone in Toluca (in the Valley of Mexico).  The lone tree was famous and venerated.  Healers used parts of it to make medicine, but, despite—or because of—their respect, the Aztecs annually harvested every single flower off the tree to prevent it from germinating and producing others of its kind. However there were rumors about offshoots hidden in royal gardens (and in the private gardens of the tree’s tenders).

Extracts from the Devil’s Hand tree are reputed to have antimicrobial properties and to serve as heart stimulants—but I lack conclusive scientific evidence for these assertions.  If you want to stimulate your heart you had probably find some other means of doing so.

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