Neurotics in the Bush: Vervet Monkeys

Written by Thomson Safaris
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Photo taken by Thomson Safaris guest, Chris Donovan

It’s common to talk about how much we share with primate species; we’re evolutionary cousins, and humans share fully 98% of their genome with chimps, our closest animal relatives.

But in several important (if not exactly complimentary) ways, vervets are the monkeys most like us. Why?

They’re a bunch of neurotics.

Vervet monkeys are known to suffer from anxiety disorders, including maternal separation anxiety (although in the case of vervets, “empty nest” syndrome is more accurately described as “empty belly syndrome”; the babies cling onto their mothers physically full-time just after birth).

Of course excessive mothering—a problem Norman Bates, for one, can relate to—may be the start of the anxiety cycle. Not only does the mother of a vervet baby never let it leave her side…er, front…most of the females in a vervet group will similarly lavish it with unending affection. In fact, among younger vervet females, mothering the “right” newborns (i.e., those born to clan members with the highest social standing, or those of close relatives) takes on an almost competitive aspect; all the females will fight to hold or groom a newborn, who, it would seem, is basically never left alone for the first few months of its life.

Vervet monkey with babyPhoto taken by Thomson Safaris guest, Len Kurzweil

Basically, Woody Allen would have material for years from these guys. Unsurprisingly, between 5 and 15% of the adult monkeys develop spontaneous high blood pressure (even after they cut back to a most-of-the-time vegetarian diet). What can you expect with that family?

They deal with these problems the way any good anxiety-ridden primate would: by drinking away their feelings.

study of vervets on St. Kitt’s—a Caribbean island where vervets were imported a few hundred years ago, and where the monkeys long ago developed a pronounced taste for fermented sugar cane (read: rum)—revealed that vervets like themselves a drink.

Or five. Or 12. Or as many as they can take before they pass out. Around 5% of the monkeys are binge drinkers. This group—often comprised of young males (they really MUST be our cousins)—will drink themselves to death within 2-3 months if given unlimited access to the sauce (luckily, this doesn’t happen much in the wild, where they rely mainly on daiquiris stolen from tourists).

About 15% of the vervets are what we’d call “functional alcoholics.” Luckily for them, vervet society is firmly stuck in the Mad Men era; drinking a few whiskeys neat with lunch is just a sign that you deserve respect.

The majority of the monkeys are social drinkers, and prefer to steal tourist beverages that have been jazzed up with fruit juices or soft drinks. They never drink before lunch (for SHAME!), and never drink alone.

And another 15% of the monkeys are teetotalers, and are presumably shocked and appalled by the drunken fools they have to share St. Kitt’s with.

Why so much drinking? Well, it could be that vervets are, well…jerks.

Young vervets often terrorize their (admittedly overbearing) parents by sounding alarm calls when they’re just fine, just to see the fallout, and adult vervets are one of the few non-human species who do things out of spite: they’ve been observed destroying a competitor’s food source (rather than stealing it or eating it themselves), presumably to make sure that guy NEVER CROSSES THEM AGAIN.

Presumably, as long as they don’t steal a rival’s alcohol supplies, everything will work out fine in the end. Or at least they’ll forget why—or that—they were ever mad with one another.