Meet Your Old Friend, the Multipurpose Monkey

A young Tibetan Macaque. These monkeys get caught up in adult fights when efforts related to tourism restrict their range. The primate infant mortality rate jumped from about 15 percent prior to 1992, to nearly 55 percent after the monkeys became tourist attractions. (Image credit: Carol Berman)

A macaque is a really good, general purpose, sort of monkey. Macaques are also the monkeys that people know the best. When 5-year-olds draw a picture of a monkey , with its smooth body, long tail, tiny ears, and impish face, they are drawing a macaque. We know these animals well because macaques are also the quintessential research animal. The polio vaccine was first developed in macaques, various contraceptives and pharmaceuticals have been tested on macaques, and they were sent into space before apes or people. And now, a macaque is walking on a treadmill and thinking hard to make a remote robot walk, a technique that will hopefully be of use to the disabled in the future, Duke University Medical Center researchers recently announced. But lost in all this service to humankind is the fact that these are really great monkeys, and they have an important place in nature; they are a lot more than lab animals. Macaques are the most geographically widespread primate after humans. But unlike humans, their adaptation to a variety of places is natural, not cultural. Various species of macaques are found in deep forests, on mountainsides and at the beach. They incredibly agile — they scurry across branches high in the canopy and leap tall buildings with a single bound, and they can run really fast when scared by a predator or motorcycle. In other words, macaques know how to stay out of danger. But the real reason macaques are so successful as a species is because they eat just about anything. Flowers, leaves, fruit, insects and whatever an unsuspecting tourist might bring to a temple in Asia. Hard candy? Sure, love it. Potato chips? Monkey favorite. The monkey will also take your ham sandwich and cookies while he's at it. And they are smart, maybe not as smart as chimpanzees, but still very smart. Especially in the social realm. Their lives are full of intrigue, Machiavellian moves for power and concern for who is doing what with whom, just like people. They are also socially intelligent. I once watched a low-status female Barbary macaque worm her way up the tightly held female hierarchy simply by grooming the babies of high-ranking females. She did it quietly, opportunistically, and pretty soon she was one of them. Macaques, especially females, also know more about the bonds of kinship than any human family. Macaque society is matrilineal in every sense; females eat together, sleep together and bring up their kids together. And those bonds are significant. I've seen Barbary macaques form a phalanx behind a female in trouble, and the closest kin were right behind her with more distant relatives farther back, all of them screaming in support. In fact, macaques, not chimpanzees, were the first animals to alert researchers that kinship held the evolutionary key to just about everything primates, including humans, do. We share genes in common with kin and so we should help them over others, even when that preference puts us at risk. Macaques also teach us something about genius. On an ordinary day on Koshima Island, Japan, a young female macaque named Imo picked up a piece of sandy sweet potato and washed it in the sea. Some time later she grabbed a handful of rice and tossed it on the waves also to get rid of the sand. Pretty soon, her recipe for salt potatoes and rice passed from monkey to monkey, demonstrating how culture might have spread among early humans. Maybe soon, we'll see robots washing potatoes for lunch while macaques lounge in beach chairs nearby, thinking really, really hard about that salty potato.

Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves". She is a contributor to Live Science.