Any Barbary macaque would tell you, if it could, that spring is a wonderful time to be in the Atlas Mountains. With the weather warming up there is sunbathing to be done, delicious flowers, herbs, new leaves and shoots to guzzle, and plenty of little black bundles of joy arriving to keep you hopping from branch to branch and thoroughly entertained.
New babies are always exciting, especially if you are a Barbary macaque. Infants abound in the forest at the moment. The first observed infant of 2013 appeared in early March, much to my delight as I had arrived as a research assistant only a few days previously. As we walked into the clearing where we had left the monkeys there he was in his mothers arms, a tiny new-born male still wet, shiny and new, umbilical cord still attached having been born only hours before – it was a really exciting moment, especially considering I’d seen my first wild monkey only days before! He is the baby of proud mother Wanda from the blue group, so we named him William. He was the first and only known infant for a week or two, but soon more arrived and continue to appear in many of the groups even now – the current count is 16 infants over the 5 study groups, but we suspect more will arrive imminently. The addition of 4 completely new study groups to the project means that there are a lot of new faces to become acquainted with and new home ranges to explore, a job which is made exponentially more delightful by the arrival of the infants who appear to have the sole aim of stirring things up and disturbing the peace.
The green group has had a fantastic infant turn out this year with one for every female, which means 6 new-borns to cause mayhem for everyone. Dominant female Anna is so irritated by her little trouble-maker that she is often to be observed flailing around like a puppy chasing its tail trying to remove her screaming infant daughter from her back – apparently evolution has favoured the infants desire to cling on, as poor Anna’s arms are simply too short to grab her. Thankfully for Anna and all the other new mothers there are many willing babysitters in the group, not least the juveniles. Juveniles as young as 1 year old can be seen dragging their tiny new siblings around, a highly amusing (if sometimes terrifying) sight for the observer since the infant is only slightly smaller than its little caretaker, who is forced to perform a sort of half-waddle-half-limp gait in order to carry the infant and move at all.
The excitement of the males over the new arrivals is tangible, with the sound of excited teeth chattering ringing through the forest as a sandwich is formed around an infant. At first the infants seem confused and a little terrified by this behaviour, where two (or sometimes three) males embrace around the infant, teeth chattering with apparent joy for a social bonding purpose. I don’t blame the little ones for their fear and confusion – there are at least four rows of very large and very sharp teeth in their faces. None the less the infants soon seem to get into the spirit of things – often little William can be seen trying out his own tiny, rather slow teeth chatter which looks less like he’s chattering his teeth than like he’s doing his best goldfish impression. The males are so keen to handle the infants that some of the odder males in the green group have even been observed pretending that their leg is an infant in order to form a sandwich with another male – a tactic which seems surprisingly successful, even if it is a bit weird.
But this spring hasn’t been all sunshine and fun. The weather has fluctuated so much as to create a wardrobe nightmare for us weak H.sapiens. While little more than a t-shirt, shorts and sunhat are necessary one day, several thermal layers and lots of shivering are essential the next, and a full set of waterproofs and poncho are needed the very next. It is utterly confusing and we have all become obsessed with the weather forecasts. Our simian counterparts, however, seem entirely unfazed by it (and frankly we envy their gorgeous fur coats from time to time). Their incredible ability to cope with the ridiculous swings in temperature and humidity never ceases to amaze, while even the hardest heart will melt at the sight of a mother and her little ones huddled up in a line like furry Matryoshka dolls against the cold. As soon as the sun comes out again sunbathing becomes the order of the day, and the limits of contortion are explored as the monkeys stretch themselves out in positions which cannot possibly be comfortable, but do provide the maximum possible exposure to the sun.
We all have our fingers crossed that the weather will continue to improve, with long lazy days in the sunshine for the monkeys and good conditions for the little ones. Although it is rather sweet when they tuck their little hands and feet into their bodies against the cold, it can be dangerous for the infants, so we continue to hope for the best!