In less than a month, I have spent more waking hours watching monkeys than I would have thought possible. With over 200 individual monkeys to learn by name, face, and social status, there’s rarely a time when I’m not scrutinizing little pink faces for distinguishing birthmarks or telltale scars. It’s not easy. Hell, I don’t think I could even name 200 people.
However, this intensive observation has given me insight into the truly bizarre social and recreational practices of capuchin monkeys, which goes even beyond the strangeness of what I was expecting. For example, a few days ago I was watching two youngsters groom each other, when suddenly one reached over and calmly bit out a chunk of the other’s facial hair.
His friend reacted much better than I would have. He simply stopped what he was doing and devoted all his attention to retrieving his own hair from his friend’s clenched teeth, who obliged by holding still and grinning like a cretin. One the tuft of hair was freed, it when in the retriever’s mouth, and the monkeys switched roles, stealing the tuft out of each other’s toothy smiles until it was a matted clump. Then one bit out another chunk and the game continued.
I was watching a monkey game: a play behavior with set “rules” and procedure to follow between two individuals with a strong social bond. Painful or not, they clearly found it interesting, and it have served as a kind of bond-strengthener as well as a diversion. Monkeys often display such behavior among peers or allies, but it usually manifests as mutual grooming or rubbing of plant materials into fur. This can happen between pairs, but may sometimes grow to include practically the entire group, with a mad orgy of monkeys all piling onto one another, furiously rubbing and grooming.
But by far the weirdest and most disturbing “game” was something that until yesterday I’d only heard about. And not quite believed. It is called “eyeball poking,” and is exactly how it sounds. One monkey will take the hand of a willing partner and–oh jeez–insert a horny finger into the space between its own eyeball and the socket. It looks like a monkey is trying to give itself a trans-orbital lobotomy with its friend’s finger, all while shuddering in either intense ecstasy or masochistic pain. I still can’t explain it properly, and I’m still trying to get a decent picture of it in action.
Other “play” includes tag, wrestling, mounting, and slap fights that occur while hanging up-side down by the tails from a branch. Okay, that last one actually sounds like fun.