Winter has come and gone and the warm breeze of summer is scenting the atmosphere; the animal kingdom buzzes with new life, recovering from the struggles of a bitter season. But in the mountain chains of Japan, high in the deciduous forests, lives a tribe who never forgets the biting chill of the days gone by: the snow monkeys.
You might be wondering why a clan of monkeys is frolicking in the snow, and you’d be perfectly right to wonder. There are over 180 primate species in the world but only the Japanese macaque can survive the polar temperatures and steep altitudes of the island of Honshū, and he alone partakes in the annual snowball competition.
Like their human relatives, macaques rely on intricate oral traditions and have evolved a marvelous capacity to pass information across generations (which until recently was believed to be a solely human faculty). Their accent (or pitch) varies by postcode and each individual is capable of numerous different facial expressions.
The popular images of snow monkeys bathing in steamy hot tubs are in fact quite recent; only twenty or so years ago the first female macaque waded into the steamy warmth of a volcanic spring and encouraged her peers and successors to follow suit and revel in the waters’ beneficial qualities.
In the hot tub
Snow monkeys have an elaborate hierarchical system that establishes not only who can access the hot springs, but also the social standing of every clan member. Despite the matriarchal system of tightly-nit sisterhoods, each year a few select alpha males are appointed guardians of the tribe. It is their job to guard the springs from lower status monkeys and unwelcome intruders.
Image: David McKelvey
You may be wondering, why this constant reiteration of their human resemblance. Well, although 40% of macaques’ diurnal cycle is employed in hunting and gathering, a good 60% of their time is spent monkeying around.
Image: Alexandra Bolderova
Much like our own infants, macaques are weaned until their second year and only reach schooling age at around five or six; until then they are free from the binds of matriarchy and the responsibilities that come with age.
Snow monkey infants are friendly and hyperactive; they wrestle and squeal until a parent scolds them from the hot tub.
For some odd and marvelous reason snow monkeys, young and old, like us, are excited by the seasons’ first snowfall and compete to roll the largest snowball; the younger ones become frustrated, the alpha males gloat with pride and the mothers, they hand out hefty doses of discipline.
The snow monkey is no frivolous critter; like most primates they are sociable and clean animals, who spend hours meticulously grooming to both bond and keep healthy, yet, snow monkeys also take it a step further: it is known for them to wash their food before eating it and season it in the salt water.
Image: Marc Veerart
Although macaques are technically omnivores, they are primarily frugivorous and will nibble on every leafy, juicy, tasty plant they can get their opposable thumbs on. In spring they feed on seeds, flowers and tender leaves and when in luck they’ll pinch some eggs from the treetops. In late summer and early autumn they stuff their cheeks with succulent fruits and berries, sometimes crabs and, with a bit of patience, the rare sashimi from the nearby streams.
The main summer activity for snow monkeys is in fact accumulating layers of fat for the colder, scarcer winter months when mostly everything is covered in snow and all forest-dwelling creatures are squabbling over tree bark and roots.
The increased development and deforestation of Japanese forests have both pushed the monkeys further north where food is scarce and living conditions dire, and increased human-primate encounters. Despite our commonalities, the snow monkeys’ scavenging customs, their greedy passion for fruit and their naughty schoolboy muck-ups have won them a negative reputation and a new predator: the frustrated farmer.
Today the Japanese macaque is in decline and has been listed as yet another endangered species, but efforts to reforest their mountainous homes are proceeding, and with some luck the monkey that inspired the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ maxim will continue to amaze us for many years to come.