While we’re worrying about robotic or alien overlords taking over our planet, the monkeys may already be doing it behind our backs. Or, in the case of a special group on the island of Bali, right in front of our disbelieving faces. Tourists visiting the Uluwatu Temple have for years recounted being accosted by monkeys who would steal glasses, hats, souvenirs and other small possessions then wait for someone to give them food before returning the items to the owner.
Cute or extortion? Primatologist Fany Brotcorne had a better question: cultural or learned behavior? Did these monkeys train their offspring and other monkeys to commit crimes for cookies? Has it evolved into an inane ability? Sounds like the makings of a study!
It is a unique behavior. The Uluwatu Temple is the only place in Bali where it is found.
According to her report in journal Primates, Brotcorne spent four months in 2010 studying four different groups of long-tailed or crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) at and around the Balinese Hindu sea temple built on the edge of a cliff and dating back to at least the 11th century. The temple honors the water goddess Dewi Danu who obviously doesn’t offer much protection against monkeys.
Brotcorne found that two groups of monkeys that were around tourists the most were the biggest extorters. This suggested to her that the monkeys learned the behavior by observing other macaques. Younger males who were natural risk-takers led their groups in wallet and hat taking as well. In a follow-up visit, she found that a fifth group that moved into the area had learned the behavior from the others. Unfortunately, the study lasted only four months so Brotcorne could not observe the behavior being passed down to the next generation, but her experience with macaques leads her to believe this is also common.
What does this study tell us? A lot, says Serge Wich, a primatologist at John Moores University.
[It’s] a new and rather spectacular example of flexibility in primate behavior in response to environmental changes. It is particularly interesting because the same behavior is not seen in other places where it could occur. This indicates that it may indeed be a new behavioral tradition in primates and that it teaches us that new traditions may involve stealing and exchanging with a different species.
According to Brotcorne, it gets scarier.
Trading skills are not well known in animals. They are generally defined as unique to humans.
Here’s another way Brotcorne observed the monkeys acquiring human traits.
The monkeys were always trying to steal my hat, my pen, even my research data!
Theft. Extortion. Covering up their crimes by stealing the data. Are these monkeys becoming more like humans … or vice versa?