The Society of Rhesus Monkeys

May 25, 2022 | By Roohi Narula
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A famous African proverb states that “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

These words on the power of community speak of a mechanism commonly applied by us humans. Social bonds enrich our lives with sensitivity and an intense will to survive. 

A similar philosophy of social life is followed by our closest primates. Today, we take a look at the importance of social relationships for the old world monkey, the Rhesus Macaque.  

Who Run The World? Girls! 

In a social group, the females outnumber the male monkeys by a 4:1 ratio. A social group of monkeys is made up of a few male adults, a number of females, and their offspring. Female monkeys tend to stick to their natal groups, while the men often emigrate to other groups upon reaching puberty.  Female-headed subdivisions are called matrilines. Each matriline comprises generations of related females like grandmothers, mothers, sisters, cousins, and babies. Adult male groups however are formed by unrelated, immigrant monkeys. 

Rhesus Monkey troops can be as large as 200 [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Shirina Sawhney]

A Machiavellian World

The fight for power amongst rhesus macaques is often ruthless. Dario Maestripieri, an evolutionary biologist and animal behaviorist from the University of Chicago, studied a colony of rhesus macaques transplanted from India to a small Puerto Rican island in 1938. He describes these primates as ‘Machiavellian’ with their brutal and opportunistic ways. 

Relationships of dominance exist between each monkey. The winner of the first fight between two individuals declares the losing individual forever be a subordinate of the winner. Once dominance is established, the subordinate will express submission by avoiding being around the dominant. Often, this hierarchy is reinstated by the dominating one through attacks and threats. This ensures a linear hierarchy in every group.  Males who are recent joinees of a group have the lowest ranking. They gradually achieve a higher ranking by making alliances with powerful males and females. 

Matrilines maintain stable hierarchies.  Typically, mothers remain dominant over daughters; the youngest daughter remains subordinate due to factors such as strength and fertility. Mothers provide agonistic support by intervening in fights on behalf of their offspring. The winning mother’s daughter has conferred dominance with a rank right below her mother’s. 

Matrilines also compete with each other. 

The chief leader is the most powerful female of the most powerful matriline. Leading her group in their efforts to survive, this supreme dictator shares her power with an alpha male who simply acts as a form of protection for a small cadre of males, who live amongst the females.

Monkey’s are constantly engaged in battles of power [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Mradul Pathak]

She’s Promiscuous 

For Rhesus Macaques, the alpha male is entitled to mate with every adult female in the group. An alpha male will make sure he has an exclusive right over females so that he can lay claim over the offspring.  A new male leader will often kill off the babies of old leaders. While these alpha males might assume they run the show, females prefer to lead it behind the scenes. To ensure that her offspring isn’t killed by a competitive male, females inconspicuously mate with multiple males.

Rhesus Monkeys are widely distributed in India [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Nikhil Bisht]

No Love Like Mother’s Love

Research shows that Rhesus Macaques are capable of feeling a variety of emotions. An infant monkey is as demanding of its mother’s love and care as a human child. The relationship a baby monkey shares with its mother is pivotal to its emotional development. Loss and isolation of a baby can lead to abnormal behavior and increased aggression. Wildlife SOS rescued numerous orphaned baby Rhesus Macaques with similar signs of grief. 

Orphaned baby monkeys rescued by Wildlife SOS [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Mradul Pathak]

Friends indeed! 

A study by scientists at the University of Exeter has shown that friendships between monkeys can increase their survival and improve their reproductivity. Their research from “Monkey Island” also states that females with strong social connections were 11% less likely to die in a given year! 

Rhesus Macaques take their friendships seriously, as observed in multiple instances.  In the city of Kanpur in India, people were surprised to see a monkey revive his troop member after it was electrocuted. Oftentimes, the Wildlife SOS rescue team faces the ire of a group of monkeys who perceive humans as a threat, and they are ever ready to defend their companions! 

Rhesus Monkey friendships are their biggest strength [Photo (C) Wildlife SOS/ Shirina Sawhney]

Much like us humans, Rhesus Macaques too rely on social activity for their own development. Despite the turmoil of competition, power, and politics, these primates have continued to live within the structure of a community. Such sociability increases their chances of survival by creating a defense against predators, access to food and other resources, and successful mating. Camaraderie and strategic ways to sustain livelihood are concepts that we, as humankind, are only too familiar with, and we can now appreciate the ways of the monkey brethren. 

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