Macaque bath

A confession: I rarely pause to notice our snow monkeys. When I pass them, I’m usually in a rush to get from the Discovery Bay end of the zoo to the Tropics/Minnesota Trail end, or vice-versa. And when I started at the zoo, it was understood that all our macaques were old, sedate and no longer reproductive. But then, out of nowhere a few years back, a baby emerged. And another. And so on, at least once or twice a year. There’s a lively group of adolescents in there now, and last week three of them were playing in their pool before a delighted indoor/outdoor human audience.

Japanese macaques are mid-sized monkeys, weighing no more than 50 pounds (these juveniles look about half-grown). My Big Binder of Zoo Facts also states that they have “complex communications, with more than 30 vocal sounds and a wide range of facial and body expressions” (emphasis mine). Here’s a wee example from last week’s pool-play session:

Japanese macaques live in the coldest climate of any nonhuman primate, where snow may get up to five feet deep. So it’s not surprising that these guys wanted to cool off underwater, especially when the sun peeked through clouds:

Half the fun of watching zoo animals frolic is hearing the exclamations from guests. One monkey seemed to be searching for something at the pool’s bottom, and one guest wondered repeatedly what it was. Another cried out, “This is so entertaining!” as the monkeys took turns chasing each other from the pool to the trees and back again.

The juveniles like to run up the branches of this fallen dead tree. The more ponderous adults also venture up there sometimes, but in the wild, Macaca fuscata is a fairly terrestrial species, with a strict dominance hierarchy to help protect groups of 25-plus on the ground. It’s a matriarchal society, with the choice of alpha-male depending on his mom. Juveniles occupy the middle of that totem pole, above the lesser males. In the wild, juvenile males spend a lot of time playing and rough-housing. The same seems true in zoos.

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Growing old, growing up

Every so often, intriguing new tasks for volunteers pop up at the zoo. Last week, it was keeping an eye on the video camera pointed at the wolverine exhibit.

Our wolverine group is a lively bunch in general. A few weeks ago, I saw one pair’s play-fighting escalate until one wolverine had his jaws clamped on the other’s loose neck-skin and was swinging the “clampee” around himself in circles. (The “swung” wolverine seemed fine afterward, if you were wondering.) But as volunteer coordinator Heidi explained, one furry resident of the Minnesota Trail — the one sitting in this oddly human pose, looking quite vulnerable and cuddly for a wolverine — is now an astonishing 18 years old, and he’s arthritic. (In the wild, a 12-year-old wolverine would be considered ancient.) Zoo staff want to monitor his movements for an hour per day as they consider changes to his exhibit and how much time he spends outdoors.

One such change, already made, is the slanted bridge above. Wolverines are natural climbers, but staff added these “steps” to help the old guy reach the upper rocks more easily. Ten hours of outdoor VCR action should wrap up this week, Heidi tells me. Vets and keepers will watch the footage, along with additional footage recorded in the indoor¬† “holding” area, to help decide what other modifications can keep this guy’s life as painless, yet mobile, as possible.

Same day, opposite end of the age spectrum: In the warmth of the Tropics, I got a decent photo of Baby DeBrazza sooner than expected.

The DeBrazza monkey-mom in our Faces of Africa exhibit is striking a fine balance between letting Baby cling to her underside and letting him/her explore a little, as is happening here. S/he’s about two months old now. (Those are fake figs in the foreground, by the way — purely decorative in this exhibit, but a major food source for DeBrazza’s monkeys and many other African creatures in the wild.) Baby DeBrazza’s 18-month-old sister, I noticed Thursday, is developing an orange forehead patch that looks much more distinct and adult these days — a reminder that while life is winding down in one place, it’s surely picking up speed somewhere else.

Babies change everything!

There’s nothing like a new baby to shake up a group dynamic — and yes, I say this the day after Christmas.¬† The interspecies dynamic in “Faces of the African Forest,” six months after the exhibit opened on our Tropics trail, had settled into a cheerful coexistence: red river hogs, colobus monkeys, DeBrazza’s monkeys and rock hyraxes making gradual incursions into each other’s spaces and occasionally mixing it up a bit. The dynamic shifted a couple of weeks ago when the female DeBrazza’s surprised us all by giving birth. (They’re pregnant for five or six months.) Since then, the two monkey species have been rotating on and off exhibit on alternating days to ensure that the colobus monkeys leave the baby alone. So far, Thursday has been “colobus day,” so I haven’t seen Baby DeBrazza in person yet, but I’ve already noticed a couple of effects.

The first effect: Since the birth, the DeBrazzas’ names have become public knowledge — daddy is Otis, mom is Mashama. Here’s Daddy Otis in the foreground, before the birth and species-separation, with a colobus gazing pensively into the distance behind him.

And here’s the DeBrazza’s monkey formerly known as “the baby,” who now also has a known name — Dafu, which is Swahili for “coconut.” She’s about a year and a half old. Her default gender is female, but because our zookeepers avoid any unnecessary manhandling of wildlife, that’s just an educated guess. What’s certain is her playfulness, and how much she loves to pester the exhibit’s hyraxes when they emerge from their hiding places. There’s the birth’s other effect: With the DeBrazza clan off exhibit every other day, the hyraxes have emerged more decisively. On Thursday, I spotted three of the four — including this one, seen gazing down at the slumbering hogs below.

Hyraxes are difficult to explain. At 2-11 pounds apiece, they look like rodents — but they’re not. Their sticky paws and clawlike nails make them agile climbers in their African and Middle East habitats. Although they’re mammals, they have a reptile’s difficulty with thermoregulation and therefore need to sunbathe. When little Dafu was on exhibit every Thursday, she made a favorite diversion of chasing hyraxes and swatting at them. While it took me months to capture the half-decent DeBrazza’s photos above, I had an even harder time getting a hyrax shot. “Faces of Africa” poses a lot of challenges for the amateur photographer with a basic Canon PowerShot: iffy lighting, a large central panel of thick mesh and, on the DeBrazza/hyrax front, creatures obscured by lightning-quick motions and camouflage-friendly coloration. (The DeBrazza’s often duck their heads to hide the telltale orange patch on their foreheads.) But now that I’ve finally got my pictures of these two elusive species, an attempt to catch Baby DeBrazza in my lens can’t be too far in the future.

A new and lovely monkey

“Faces of the African Forest,” the zoo’s new six-species exhibit on the Tropics Trail, doesn’t officially open until tomorrow. But evening preview events have been going on this week, and yesterday I got a good look at several species: the red river hogs, the West African dwarf crocodiles and, most especially, the black-and-white colobus monkeys.

These guys are gorgeous, with white “capes” and long, fluffy white tails — so gorgeous, in fact, that their fur was used to trim Europeans’ coats in the mid-1800s. (Fortunately, these adaptable leaf-eaters are not endangered.) Their facial structure conveys a perpetual worried frown, just as dolphins always appear to be smiling. Because they have three-chambered “ruminant” stomachs, colobus (pronounced CAHL-a-bus) typically spend most of their day lounging and digesting, but the zoo’s trio still seem intrigued by their new home in the former sun bear exhibit — especially this hollowed-out tunnel log.

In a burst of design brilliance, the log was fashioned so that small humans can crawl through it, with a glassed-in gap in the wood through which the kids and monkeys can see each other. It’s a safe way for children to feel they’re entering the exhibit, even though they’re not. As of yesterday, the monkeys still found this fascinating; at one point, the brothers and their female companion were all leaning over the side of the log to investigate this other species tunneling beneath them.

The monkeys also explored the rear of their exhibit, jumping from tree to tree, capes and tails billowing whitely behind them. (They don’t brachiate with those arms; in fact, “colobus” derives from the Greek word for “mutilated,” meaning these monkeys have ineffective stumps for thumbs.) Also at the rear of the exhibit were our pair of De Brazza’s monkeys and their baby, which I glimpsed only briefly. Smaller and more active than the colobus, the De Brazza’s are expected to become the more entertaining monkey in time. I’ll be waiting to see.