Clever Monkeys
Monkeys and Emotion


Rhesus macaque and baby

The life of a monkey is full of ups and downs. Like us, monkeys form strong friendships and bitter rivalries. They fight for each other and take care of one another. And the leader of a monkey troop, when deposed, will even exhibit signs of depression. When we watch their behavior we get the sense that their emotional lives may share something in common with our own.

Friends and Enemies

Monkeys have a complex social system, and they form relationships with each other on an individual basis. When they encounter each other, monkeys will remember back to past interactions. Old rivals can be greeted with rage if they swing into the wrong part of the jungle. As we see in Clever Monkeys, such skirmishes sometimes even end in death.

By the same token, monkeys will remember the help of a friend. Grooming, for example, shows affection and respect. And when it’s time for a fight, a monkey with whom you’ve built a friendship is much more likely to fight at your side — or clean your wounds afterward!

Dealing with Death


Toque macaques huddle together after a member of their troop is killed in Clever Monkeys. Image © BBC

In Clever Monkeys, when the leader of a troop of toque macaques is killed, the others gather in silence around his body. As though they truly feel remorse, even his old rivals now seem to show their deference, tenderly touching their fallen leader.

Everyone is affected by death, but a monkey mother that has lost her infant seems especially hard-hit. In nearly all species of monkey, the mother will carry her child’s lifeless body around with her for days. Do these examples show that monkeys share our emotional response to death? Some researchers suggest that while they may not understand death in the same way we do, monkeys and apes do seem share our tendency to have trouble accepting it.

Stressed Out!

Monkeys suffer from stress, much like we do, and often it seems to relate to social problems. For example, baboon society is extremely competitive. Males who try to move up the social ladder and fail can suffer from high blood pressure and even ulcers. But those at the top don’t necessarily have it any better: high-ranking males who fall from power often exhibit signs of depression.

A Mother’s Love

A mother monkey’s attention and care during her child’s infancy has a significant impact on the young monkey’s emotional development. Infant rhesus and pigtail monkeys react to the absence of their mothers in much the way we would expect a human child to react. At first, they coo for her and search excitedly. However, after a while, they will stop playing with others and take on a slouched posture.

A lack of love from mother and peers during infancy has an even greater effect later in life. In one study, three-year-old rhesus monkeys that were isolated during their first year of life showed much more aggression toward unknown monkeys than did their peers.

From maintaining complex social relationships, to suffering anxiety and depression, there are many trials in the life of a monkey. Perhaps the next thing monkeys should consider evolving is a good therapist.

Photo (top) © Charlotte Scott

  • Lynn Porritt

    This was outstanding! I was mesmerized by the photography and the conclusions drawn by the author. Incroyable!

  • Hal Studholme

    well done

  • Duke

    I defintiely want to see this again when it comes out on DVD.

  • Diana Monell

    This was one of the most interesting programs I’ve seen on Nature – it really brought home the intelligence of these creatures. Thank you.

  • bonnie

    are they capable of feeling jealousy?

  • azulbug

    My belief is the monkeys probably understand death better than we do.

  • John Quirk

    This was an excellent program. I learned so much about the natural and cultural connection between humans and monkeys, as well as monkeys and other monkeys. “The hands that were tiny when they explored the world and opened the mind, now demonstrate a gentle understanding for compassion.” Awesome stuff.

  • UK Sceptic 1957

    Can we say “anthropormorphism”? (giving human traits to non-humans). Animals can not feel pain or have emotions, female monkeys can not grieve for their dead babies. They are not sentient like we are, apes can not learn sign language, they can only “ape” it, “monkey see, monkey do”. This show glamourises this topic, it is not hard science, hell, it’s not even “science”, just fluff.

  • US Skeptic

    To UK Sceptic: Can you cite studies that support your assertions?

    (BTW, the word is spelled “anthropomorphism”, and using “can not” is more typically used as “cannot” when you are stating that something can never happen, i.e., “I cannot fly.”)

    I thought the most profound insight of the program was how much monkey is in us, not the other way around.

    I would very much appreciate the study/reference for the statement “Animals can not (sic) feel pain.”

    Thank you.

  • Tommy

    UK S(k)eptic: What are you talking about? Are you saying that they just screech, make noise, and do things for the sake of doing it? I mean.. you can’t even spell the word Skeptic.. that blows your credibility out of the water… LOL.

  • geraldguild

    Absolutely fascinating program! Clever monkeys – clever kin – no doubt!

  • chocolate freckles

    I absolutely loved this program!! it was amazing and super interesting.

  • Chris

    Another masterpiece of our closest descendant. Congratulations

  • MikethePhilosopher

    This was a well researched and beautifully orchestrated film. I researched monkey social behavior a few years ago and saw many hours of difficult research displayed concisely and elegantly in this artful film. The excellent narration is corroborated by more recent peer reviewed papers in neuroscience.Thank you for this wonderful presentation.

  • escher7

    Anyone who believes that cats, dogs, monkeys etc. are “just animals” has probably grown up either as a farmer where some disassociation is necessary to slaughter animals etc., or was badly in need of a mother’s love. I was once told a story by a guy who had injected a cat with drugs for a laugh, resulting in the death of the animal. He had no compassion, and was very obviously psychotic.

    I have seen one of my cats fight off death waiting for me to wake up so she could die in my arms. The other female did not want to be held but curled up three feet away and watched as I fell asleep. She died with her eyes open looking at me. These are not the actions of dumb robots but of feeling sentient beings.

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