Friday, June 10

Don't personify your monkeys

I apologize in advance, this is not going to be a pretty one.

Monkey "witch" burned by South African township mob

Animal welfare workers were contacted by a Kagiso resident traumatized by the incident, in which a vervet monkey was beaten, pelted with stones, shot at and burned to death.

I bring attention to this because it is bad news all-around, from the sociopathic behavior of a few people, to the racist comments made in response. The description is brief, but I would be willing to wager it was a bad kernel of a few unsavory individuals who carried out this whole thing.

In retrospect, it seems I've been reading a lot of depressing books lately, the tone of which is slipping into my writing. This endless sinus infection isn't helping matters either. See above for apology.

However, what really set me to writing was a memory brought to the surface by this article. I was once told a story by one of the white women who lived right at the forests edge, almost directly in the path of one of the troop's usual routes. One day she walked out of her house and found herself surrounded by the troop, which was leisurely passing through the yard. They can sneak up on you pretty quickly if you don't know what to look for.

In her surprise, she stumbled, and almost fell. When her bearings returned, she thought the baboons were laughing at her.

Baboons do not laugh.

Baboons will make a sound that we have onapatomeiacally dubbed a "kek." Its not as common as a grunt or a bark, but probably on par with a wahoo, at least in this population of baboons. The females use it in social interactions, it is generally issued by a female in the presence of a higher ranking female, as a way of reducing tension. The details are vague to me, and as far as I know, this is a behavior which has been studied quite little.

Cheney and Seyfarth are the go to people for modern baboon research, moreso even in Chacmas, moreso further in anything to do with vocalizations, particularly those of the females. Pretty much everything in the literature deals with "grunts," unfortunately, which means that a Kek is either being classified as a grunt, or this behavior has actually been too difficult to research.

One could reasonably argue that the Kek is ethologically derived from a grunt. In a process which is well known through Konrad Lorenz' illustration of dog behaviors, pictured below.
Along the left column, Lorenz has drawn the transition of a dog's face from calm to fearful. Along the top, he transitions to aggressive. The other pictures are combinations of the facial expressions at various stages, culminating in the lower right picture, which depicts full on fear and aggression in concert.

The Kek could be the result of a comparable combination. The female might have adopted a grimace of fear, distorting her cheeks and and tightening her facial muscles. While trying to grunt to another baboon in an affiliative manner, the twisting and tightening of muscles could distort the sound of the call, producing a Kek. If this is what is happening, ought we still to call this a "grunt"? If a human observer can distinguish between the two, then a baboon can unquestionably discern a difference in meaning as well.

To make an overly ruminative explanation short, the Kek sounds a bit like a mean spirited laugh, and regardless of what a Kek really means to a baboon, it definitely is not a form of laughter. This story is one of coincidence, but in light of what happened to that vervet, I must be thankful that this encounter involved an enlightened Capetonian, and that baboons are way bigger and scarier than vervets.

There is a sad lack of publicly available baboon sounds that one can find on the web. However, I did find this. There are no Kek'ing sounds included, and some files are mislabeled, but they are all sounds one would hear from a baboon. Have a look if you've got the urge. I'll keep looking for Kek sounds; I may yet be able to dig a few up.


  1. What terrible news about the vervet monkey... I really get sad with this kind of things. It only shows the lack of information people have about primates and Nature in general. Education is one of the main ways to avoid this kind of reactions/superstitions, however, I confess I do not know how education works in South Africa and I have doubts about the government to really care about educating all people.

    I did not know about the Kek sounds, thank you for this informative post.

  2. I haven't spent time in the north of the country, so I don't have much to add about the local situation. However, everywhere you go, its clear that despite how well SA is doing (comparatively), the government still has too much on its hands. Animal education just can't be a priority for them, which is why it falls to private firms, individuals, and institutions of higher learning (like BRU at UCT) to take the lead in educating the population about animal behavior.

  3. "There is a sad lack of publicly available baboon sounds...on the web."

    So true.

  4. HI ..

    Your blog is quite nice and its really about amazing animals.

    Thanks for the post and for the blog.

    Aadi Stellon