Monkeys get by with help from their friends

The survival of macaques during a harsh winter in the Atlas Mountains was dependent on the quantity - not quality - of their relationships.

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Barbary macaques

Amassing hundreds of friends – some of whom you may barely know or have never met – on Facebook may not be a pointless exercise after all: research carried out by scientists on monkeys in Morocco suggests that the quantity of relationships an individual has could be a matter of life and death.

During the exceptionally cold winter of 2008-09, 30 macaques living in two separate groups in the Atlas Mountains died of starvation, leaving just 17 to make it through to the spring – a survival rate of only 36 per cent.

Now a team of scientists from the Universities of Roehampton, Lincoln and Wisconsin-Madison have analysed data gathered in the six months before the onset of winter.

The research found that the number of social interactions an individual monkey had – either social ones such as grooming or sitting close to one another or aggressive ones such as biting, chasing or threatening – was the strongest predictor of whether that animal survived or not.

“These results demonstrate the importance of weak links (ie, infrequent social interactions) within the social network, as they appear to enhance survival while the strength of the link appears to be less important,” the scientists report in the Journal of Behavioural Ecology.

Lead author Julia Lehmann said she had begun the study assuming they would find a variable relating to the quality – not just quantity – of relationships. “But quality is very difficult to define,” she added. “We don’t even know what a high quality relationship is in humans.”

Lehmann also said that the significance of the number of ties a monkey had might be boosted in extreme circumstances such as the very cold winter. “When you are pushed to the limit, new relationship aspects might become more important, and as a result you might get to feed or sleep closer to someone.

“You could imagine this with humans, too. In our daily lives, our best friends are most important, but if there was an emergency, maybe your weak links might suddenly become significant.”

Read the paper in the Journal of Behavioural Ecology 

Find out more about Barbary macaques Barbary Macaque Awareness and Conservation

 

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