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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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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?

 

Kelly Green

Hey, so Ferrebeekeeper has written about all sorts of esoteric and oddball colors, but what is up with Kelly green, a color so famous and prominent that it gets its own month? Actually, I have been avoiding writing about Kelly green because the truth is Kelly green is a pretender–a modern American color masquerading as an ancient Irish one!

A male model in a Three-piece Kelly Green suit

A male model presenting a conservative  three-piece Kelly green suit

As you probably know by now, Kelly green is a bright mid-tone green which inclines toward yellow rather than blue. It looks like newly sprouted grass and it stands out to our primate eyes/brains–probably because of ancient dietary issues of our monkey-like forbears (although all sorts of respectable people and institutions constantly appear on the news exhorting us to eat more salad). Different sources give different dates for the first known references to Kelly Green as either 1917 or 1927, so the color does not even reach back as far as the great waves of Irish immigration, but is a wholly modern invention. Indeed it seems like someone chose the brightest grass green color and named it after a short punchy Irish surname (which sounds like the modus-operandi of Madison Avenue, political operators, Hollywood, or some other enclave of sharkish American marketers).

Saint Patrick's Day Noisemakers

Saint Patrick’s Day Noisemakers

Throughout the twentieth century the color was further popularized by representing all sorts of professional and semi-professional sports teams, but it has found its greatest hold on our collective attention as the heraldic color of Saint Patrick’s Day and the month of March in general. In my head, the name instantly evokes puking teenagers with wigs, cheap clothes, and plastic spangles all of the brightest Kelly green.

Saint Patrick's Day in Chicago Illinois

Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago Illinois

Yet the history of Kelly green (or lack thereof) needs not interfere with the appreciation of the color! I have never been to Ireland, but I have laid eyes on it from a plane and it was indeed a rainbow of brilliant yellow-greens. In the populous northern hemisphere, March is the month when the new grasses–and all sorts of other plants–begin to return from winter dormancy so the marketers hit upon a deeper truth of the biosphere. Also, I have been that greensick teenager with a plastic derby and it was horrible and glorious. The color is a perfect representation of early springtime in one’s life as well as in the broader ecosystems of the temperate region!

Did I mention the green hills of Ireland?

Did I mention the green hills of Ireland?

Common Tree Shrew (Tupaia glis)

According to contemporary taxonomy, the primates (whom I haven’t yet written about because they are so near and dear) are closely related to two other groups of living mammals—both of which are native to Southeast Asia.  The closest family, the Colugos, consist of two species of delicate tree-gliding mammals described here.   The other close relatives are treeshrews (aka banxrings), 20 species of (largely) arborial tree-shrews which make up an entire order, Scandentia.

A Northern Tree Shrew (Tupaia belangeri)

Actually “treeshrew” is a misnomer, the banxrings are not true shrews at all.  They are small slight animals with long tails and neutral colored fur.  They have large sophisticated eyes and they are largely diurnal.  The arborial species have binocular vision so they can navigate in a three-dimensional world of branches where leaps must be perfectly gauged.  The slightly larger terrestrial species uses its claws to dig for insects, grubs, and roots.  All banxrings are omnivorous, feeding on arthropods, tiny vertebrates, seeds, berries, and fruits.

The pen-tailed tree-shrew (Ptilocercus lowii)

Treeshrews live in jungles, forests, mixed woodlands and bamboo groves.  They range from India to Vietnam down through Southern China, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  Of all mammals they have the largest brain to body mass ratio (although considering their slight mass that isn’t saying too much).   They are social and families mark out small territories which they mark and vigorously defend.   The treeshrews are anxious skittish creatures since they have numerous predators, including birds of prey, small carnivores, and snakes.

Treeshrew mothers leave their helpless silent babies for up to two days at a time.  When the mother returns the baby treeshrews can put on up to 60% of their weight in one feeding.  The mother is not inattentive: she interacts infrequently with her offspring so that they are not discovered by predators while they are completely helpless.  Once the treeshrews grow big enough to venture beyond the nest, the mother becomes extremely engaged with them and she helps them to learn about predators, gathering food, and climbing.

Bornean Slow Loris (Nycticebus menagensis) Photo courtesy of the Danau Girang Field Centre

Slow lorises are primates from the genus Nycticebus. All five species of slow lorises live in Southern and Southeast Asia.  The various species are scattered across a swath of territory running from southern India down across Southern China across the Malay Peninsula and throughout Indonesia. All of the slow lorises are nocturnal and arboreal.  Their large eyes help them see at night and their sense of smell is unusually acute.  The primates are omnivorous and consume insects, fruit, and plant matter.  Their metabolism is very low and their movements are slow and methodical.

Slow lorises are strepsirrhine primates: they have traits which biologists consider to be “ancestral” for primates such as rhinariums (i.e. “wet” noses such as dogs, cats, and bunnies have), multiple sets of nipples, and the ability to enzymatically manufacture ascorbic acid.

Illustration of a Slow Loris’ Brachial Gland

Slow lorises also have glands on their elbows called brachial glands which produce a strong smelling secretion.  They anoint themselves with this substance and groom it through their fur using their tooth combs (which consist of needle-like teeth on the lower jaw used for grooming).  Some zoological literature contends that slow lorises are poisonous and that the combination of their saliva and the secretion from their brachial glands is toxic to humans, however this is not exactly correct.  Humans are allergic to slow loris secretions and sometimes go into anaphylactic shock when bitten, yet the secretions are not toxic per se.

Slow Loris (from Cute Overload)

In the wild slow lorises are preyed on by large snakes, hawk-eagles, and orangutans (who are evidently not quite as vegetarian as they are made out to be).  Predictably, the hugely expanding human population of Southeast Asia constitutes the most serious threat to the various species of slow loris.  Many of the little creatures are captured for the pet trade.  Since slow loris bites are painful, hunters cut out captured animals’ teeth—an operation which is frequently fatal and, if successful, leaves them  defenseless and lacking their principle means of cleaning themselves and interacting with other lorises (since grooming is a part of bonding).

Not only are slow lorises threatened by the pet trade.  Local superstition attributes magical protection powers to the slow loris, an so their bodies are burned or cut up for various spells, potions, and nostrums (evidently the protective magic does nothing for the slow lorises themselves). David Adam, detailed some of the consequences of magical myths about lorises in an article written for The Guardian:

As a result [of superstition], the luckless lorises frequently find themselves roasted alive over wood fires while eager people catch the supposedly life-giving liquor that drips out. Bits of their bodies are used in traditional medicine. And legend has it that villagers anxious about traffic safety need only bury a loris beneath a new road to keep it free from accidents.

As stupid and malicious as human reasons for hunting slow lorises are, the most serious threat to the animals comes from deforestation and habitat destruction.  Hopefully the rampant destruction of Southeast Asia’s rainforests will halt in time to save our big eyed cousins.

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