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Monkey Business

Taking up the mantle of the old-fashioned nature film and updating it for the new millennium, Walt Disney’s seven-year-old Disneynature unit has created a series of family-friendly and highly researched wildlife films, starting in 2009 with Earth. Subsequent entries include Oceans, Wings of Life, African Cats, Chimpanzees, and Bears.

The company’s eighth outing, Monkey Kingdom, which opens in theaters on April 17, takes place in Sri Lanka inside the world of toque macaque monkeys. Narrated by Tina Fey, the story centers on a female monkey, Maya, and her “troop”; when threatened by a group of rival toque macaques, the extended family retreats to a nearby town and are forced to survive among their human primate neighbors.

To gain a better understanding of the macaques, how they survive in the face of human development, their polygamous family structure, and what is accurate in Disneynature’s latest outing, Sloan Science and Film spoke with Dr. Anthony B. Rylands, a Senior Research Scientist at Conservation International, former Professor of Vertebrate Zoology at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, and author of Marmosets And Tamarins: Systematics, Behaviour, And Ecology.

Sloan Science and Film: How endangered are toque macaques?

Anthony B. Rylands: They’re ranked as “endangered,” which is the second highest ranking of endangerment [before “critically endangered”]. In general, macaques are adaptable species. As the film shows, they’re very smart and they manage to get on in urban areas, though it’s very a disagreeable arrangement between the humans and monkeys.

SSF: How often do you see this situation with monkeys entering urban areas nowadays?

AR: It’s very widespread. It’s a serious problem in India, Thailand, and Cambodia. They’ll go into people’s offices, into their kitchens, rip things apart, and they can bite people. They’re tough. A bite from a macaque is something serious. They can be disturbing to people. In rural environments, you also see them raiding and eating crops. I’m not going to say who is to blame for this, but humans are encroaching on the territories and habitats of monkeys, and the monkeys are getting by in the best way they can. And if they find a whole field of corn, they’ll eat it. So sometimes it can be a serious problem, because it can cause conflict. And people are struggling to work out how to do deal with it. Do you kill them all? There are ethical and moral problems with doing with that, especially in Southeast Asia, where they are sacred in the Buddhist religion. You could catch them all and put them someplace else. But that’s problematic, because wherever you take them there will be other monkey groups there, and one of the groups will be disruptive to the resident population. But that doesn’t get rid of the problem. Because then another group will arrive in those urban environments, where the first group is no longer there, and they’ll take that space and start exploiting the urban environments where they can. This is nicely resolved in the film, because they show them going into an urban environment and then leaving. So the problem resolves itself. But it’s rather complicated, romanticized view of what is a really difficult situation.

SSF: About the macaque itself, is there any scientific evolutionary explanation for the “toque” hairstyle in these monkeys?

AR: No, not that I know of. These things can be just some sort of random divergence, if they’re isolated on the island, which they obviously were on Sri Lanka. They follow their own evolutionary path. There could be some selection with regard to the female liking it in the males, and they breed more. But I don’t know. All of them have different faces, and different colors and different facial arrangements.

SSF: What about the troop family unit depicted in the film? Do most primates form this type of troop?

AR: All primates tend to be social. They’re very social animals. There are numerous reasons that regulate their capacity to be in groups or not, and one of them is diet. The very simple metaphor is that if you go out in a big group of 25-30 people to a restaurant, you’re limited to how many restaurants can accommodate that many people. And that’s how monkeys, depending on their diet, live in groups, because of the spatial and temporal distribution of their food. If they’re leaf eaters, and leaves are abundant in the forest, they tend to have larger groups. But if they live on widely dispersed fruit trees, which produce small amounts of fruit, they’ll live in relatively small groups. The other aspect is regarding predators. When monkeys live a lot on the ground, they’re immediately subject to predators that they wouldn’t be subject to otherwise. And often, there’s safety in numbers. Macaques are quite terrestrial. So they, for example, have a lot of eyes and ears to keep out the predators and they tend to live in larger groups. But when you get larger groups, you often get competition for females among the males. The males want to mate with as many females as they can in what is essentially a polygamist society. So the groups can be limited to the number of males, and there’s often a uni-male group, with one adult breeding male. This is very true of the macaques. You tend to find males will disperse and leave the group and look for another group to enter with a male who is weak enough and then take over that group’s females. And entire groups will also compete for good territories and good food, which is something shown well in the film.

SSF: What in the film do you think they get right or wrong?

AR: I think they get it all right. Wolfgang Dittus, who has been living with these monkeys, worked as an advisor. Scientifically, I think they’re on mark. The story they tell is entirely plausible.

SSF: What do you think of the way these films tend to anthropomorphize the animals?

AR: Well, the macaques are very close to us; they do have feelings; they do know who their brothers, uncles and aunts are. They are conscious, feeling animals and they are very intelligent. I don’t know if people have taken the time to consider how animals think very much the same way we do; it’s just a matter of degree.

SSF: How is their familial organization different or not from human family structures?

AR: There is a very interesting hierarchy in the females. The dominant females produce babies, which became dominant, because they’re born of the dominant females. In the film, this monkey Maya is a very subordinate female, who is at the bottom of the hierarchy and they show very well the consequences of that, which are completely real. It can stay in the group, but it gets the beaten up and it can’t feed in the best places; it’s on the ground, while the others are in the trees. The film also shows well that each of the macaques has a difference face. After a while, you can recognize each of them and know each of them individually.

SSF: Are there any public misconceptions about monkeys that you’d like to correct?

AR: People may think that oh, it’s just an idiotic monkey. In the film, it shows they are distinctly feeling, intelligent animals, and also that life isn’t easy in the wild. It’s a struggle to survive. People often think about animals in zoos, “Oh, poor animal, it’s in captivity, it must be so bored and miserable.” But there are some advantages about captivity: they get free food and they’re completely secure. So it isn’t all that bad. If you look at a howler monkey, for example, it looks bored, but when you watch them in the wild, they do absolutely nothing, too, so it’s not that they’re bored. It’s just what they do.