In the northern hemisphere, it's wintertime and traditional holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah will soon be celebrated. So what monkey is appropriate for the holidays? The Snow Monkey!
The popular name is Snow Monkey, but this animal is really a Japanese macaque (muh kak'), or Macaca fuscata. These monkeys are famous for one particular behavior--they sit in natural hot springs near volcanos to bathe and escape the harsh winters of northern Japan.
While the hot spring monkeys live farther north than any other non-human primate, other Japanese macaques actually live in several different regions of Japan, in all sorts of temperatures and environments. Japanese macaques grow gray or brown coats, have red faces, 32 adult teeth, short tails and fully opposable thumbs. In the wild, macaques live 20 to 30 years.
The various articles I read disagreed on certain facts. For instance, the numbers of macaques in Japan is listed at anywhere from 35,000 to 150,000. One article said they were endangered due to loss of habitat. Since Japan's human population is shrinking and rural villages are going empty, it seems like there would be more room for monkeys.
Also, the monkeys themselves cause controversy. The Japanese people love their snow monkeys and have featured them in their art for thousands of years. But for farmers, the monkeys are pests that steal crops. Also, some monkeys have lost their fear of humans and each year tourists and villagers are bitten by aggressive monkeys looking for food.
In their natural gathering and hunting mode, these monkeys are omnivores who eat everything from crabs and bird eggs to sweet potatoes and fruit. During tough winters, they strip the bark off trees to get to the softer bark below.
Troop size for these monkeys is also difficult to pin down. I read they live in groups of 20 to 30, which would seem right for macaques. However, another article stated there were also large troops of 100 or more monkeys. Whatever the troop size, these macaques are very social, and establish a hierarchy based on dominance and order of importance.
An advantage of living in troops is that the monkeys can learn behaviors from each other than make their lives easier or simply more fun. For instance, after one female ventured into the hot springs to retrieve some soy beans, the other monkeys learned to sit in the warm water and escape the cold for a while. Other macaques learned to wash the sand off their food in both fresh water and salt water. Since the monkeys on the beach repeatedly dip their food in the ocean, it is assumed they like the salty taste.
During snowy months, scientists have observed monkeys rolling snow to form snowballs. However, no one has seen a monkey throw a snowball. This made me think about primitive humans and how the idea of throwing a rock or spear might have occurred. I predict that eventually a snow monkey will witness humans throwing snowballs at each other and learn. At that point, the tourists had better watch out.
If you travel to Japan and would like to observe the Japanese macaques in the hot springs, you can go to the Wild Monkey Park in Nagano prefecture in the north during the winter months. Near Kyoto is the monkey park at Mount Iwata, which has a viewing platform for tourists. And Mount Takasaki in Oita prefecture has over 1,000 wild monkeys. However, do not feed the monkeys, and it would be wise to avoid direct eye contact, which might be seen as a challenge.
Macaques are some of the smartest and most adaptive primates, much like humans. The sight of a snow monkey rolling a snowball or soaking in a hot spring with a look of deep contentment will bring a smile to anyone's face.