Stumbling stylishly into public consciousness in a shearling coat, Darwin-- or The Ikea Monkey, as he has come to be known-- rocketed to internet fame, spawning a host of memes and setting twitter aflame with delight, bemusement, and snark.
The story itself is still unfolding, and has been covered to death elsewhere-- The Star has a couple of good articles about it, if you want to learn more-- so I'll leave all that aside. Instead, I'd like to talk about the species for which the adorable Darwin has become an unwitting representative.
All In the Family
Rhesus macaques are a species of old world monkey. They are brown or grey in colour with long pink faces, and stand a mere half-metre tall when fully grown. An adult male macaque weighs about 8 kg, while a female weighs only 5.
Extremely social animals, rhesus macaques live in tight-knit communities called troops. Troops are matrilineal and largely female. Males are few in number, and invariably come from neighbouring troops, whereas female macaques generally descend from female macaques of the same troop.
Males born into the troop are treated well until they reach adolescence (age 4 or 5 in macaques), at which point the troop's dominant males chase them away. Exiled and at constant risk from predators, adolescent macaques form gangs and roam the countryside, living a semi-nomadic existence at the outer fringes of macaque society.
These teenage runaways live lives of savage bravado, undergoing a fierce sort of Darwinian trial by fire. The mortality rate among the gangs is many times that of the troops themselves, and the adolescent males are, understandably, eager to rejoin a troop.
How do they do this? Much the same way that female macaques improve their social standing within the troop: by picking up on, and responding appropriately to, the thousands of subtle cues that make up macaques' social lives.
In this sense, macaques are very human-like.They form close familial bonds as humans do, observing a different but no less rigid code of behaviour. Top macaques engage in a constant struggle for power, endlessly sizing up rival families and waiting for the chance to topple a dynasty and take its place at the top. Male adolescent macaques, meanwhile, live in the moment. They tend to be brash, reckless, and preternaturally drawn to risk.
The similarities don't end there. Macaques get depressed, anxious, and impulsive, much like humans. They even suffer from alcoholism.
We're Not So Different, You and I
Of course, we share many of these traits with most of our primate cousins. And though macaques are our relations, sharing 93% of our DNA, they are distant indeed when compared to other old world monkeys like chimpanzees, who share a whopping 95-98% (the exact number is disputed). To reach the common ancestor of macaques and man, you'd have to travel 25 million years back in time; with chimps, the trip would be 6 million years, a trifle by geological standards.
Yet there is one trait that is, among primates, unique to humans and macaques. It's a tricky sort of thing to pin down, a tenacious tendency I'll call adaptability.
Take a group of apes or chimps or baboons from their natural habitat and drop them unceremoniously on a new continent. Pay no mind to the climate, geography, flora, or fauna with which this adoptive home provides them. Give them no familiar food, no prefabricated shelter, no help of any kind. Odds are they'll be dead in a year, victims of a culture shock so potent and profound it cut through their intelligence, instinct, and strength, severing the cord of hope that tethered them to existence.
Humans don't have this problem. In fact, we've performed this very experiment on ourselves over and over again for hundreds of thousands of years. The only reason we stopped is because we ran out of empty places to inhabit (and even then we spent an embarrassing set of centuries conquering territories and kicking out their former residents so as to give ourselves a fresh shot at settling in an alien land).
While a little less proactive in their expansion, macaques are no less adaptable. Their native territory extends an impressive distance, stretching from the deserts of Afghanistan through the jungles of the Indian subcontinent, the forests of Bhutan, and the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, all the way to the eastern coast of China.
Macaque troops have thrived in rural Maryland, the arid plains of Texas, the swamps of Louisiana, and the Subtropical climes of the San Fernando Valley. Granted, these American colonies operate under human supervision.
But don't think macaques couldn't get along without us.
In 1938, a Florida businessman known as "Colonel Tooey" released a troop of rhesus macaques into the Silver River State Park in order to give his jungle cruise attraction a touch of exotic flavour. Flash forward seventy years and the macaques are still there. Their numbers have expanded to the point where they have become the bane of local farmers, who have repeatedly attempted to exterminate them without success.
Think of that. An invasive species of primate taking over land and causing no end of trouble for the indigenous population.
Again, sound familiar?