Macaca sylvanus

Geographic Distribution and Habitat

In Northern Africa, Barbary macaques are found in fragmented areas of the Rift, Middle, and High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, as well as the Tell Atlas mountain range of Algeria. A separate and introduced population resides in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, giving this Afro-Eurasian monkey the distinction of being the only native species of primate to occur in Europe, the only macaque to live outside of Asia, and the only surviving nonhuman primate in Africa north of the Sahara Desert.

An adaptable species, they live in a variety of habitats, such as cedar, oak, and fir forests, grasslands, and rocky ridges with plenty of vegetation. Their population in North Africa experiences seasonal extremes, with hot, dry summers, and cold, snowy winters.

Barbary macaque native geographic range. Map: IUCN, 2020 (click to enlarge)

Size, Weight, and Lifespan

Male Barbary macaques are larger than females, with a head-to-body length that ranges from 21.6 to 27.6 inches (55–70 cm); they weigh between 15.4 and 26.5 pounds (7–12 kg).

Females, by comparison, have a head-to-body length that ranges from 18 to 21.6 inches (45–55 cm); they weigh between 11 and 20 pounds (5–9 kg).

A stub of a tail measures from 0.4 to 0.8 inches (1–2 cm), and is typically more prominent in males.


Barbary macaques have thick, brown-yellow fur covering much of their body; their underside is a lighter shade. Their dark powder-pink face and narrow nose are fur free. Like all macaques, the Barbary macaque has powerful jaws with long canine teeth, and cheek pouches that are used to store food. Their front limbs are longer than their hind limbs.

Despite having a vestigial tail (a stub of a tail), which leads some people to mistakenly refer to them as “Barbary apes,” Barbary macaques are monkeys. Unlike apes, all monkeys—including macaques—have tails.


The Barbary macaque is an omnivore, with a varied diet depending on the season, available resources, and the environment. In spring and winter, their diet consists of plants and seeds; in summer and autumn, they feed on berries and fruit. Barbary macaques also consume fungi, insects and other invertebrates, lizards, and even tadpoles.

Behavior and Lifestyle

Barbary macaques are diurnal, meaning they are most active during daylight hours. They are quadrupeds, meaning they walk on all four feet. In addition, they are both arboreal and terrestrial, foraging for food in the trees and on the ground. Their days are mostly spent foraging, after which they retreat to the trees or caves at dusk. Barbary macaques huddle in groups to stay warm while sleeping.

Like all other nonhuman primates, grooming is the most common behavior used to reconcile and maintain friendly social bonds between individuals.

Offspring reach maturity at three to four years of age, and their lifespan in the wild is around 22 years.

The main predators of the Barbary macaque are domestic dogs, leopards, and eagles. Since the golden eagle species is not adapted to hunt large primates, they may only prey on younger individuals. The approach of both dogs and eagles has been known to elicit an alarm call response.

Fun Facts

Before the Ice Age, Barbary macaques inhabited the Mediterranean coasts and most of Europe, as far north as Germany and the British Isles.

Legend has it that as long as Barbary macaques exist in Gibraltar, the region will remain under British rule. Due to this belief, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered their numbers be replenished immediately when their numbers fell to just seven individuals in 1942.

Daily Life and Group Dynamics

Social and outgoing, Barbary macaques live in mixed-gender groups called “troops” ranging from 12 to over 60 individuals. Troops consist of on average around 24 individuals.

Troops are matriarchal—females hold primary power. Hierarchy is determined by lineage to the female leader, meaning the offspring of higher-ranking females are dominant over those of lower-ranking females. Males form coalitions with other males, most often with those to whom they are closely related. The hierarchy that males establish among themselves is based on the outcome of competitive interactions, but ranking orders change regularly as males age, leave, or enter the troop. Young males may be evicted from their natal troop as they reach puberty, forming bachelor groups until they join a new group. Males also migrate to different groups during the breeding season.

Unlike other macaques, males participate in rearing the young; they may spend a considerable amount of time playing with and grooming infants, regardless of paternity, thereby increasing their bonds. This may be a result of selectivity on the part of the females, who may prefer highly parental males as opposed to those who spend less time interacting with offspring.

In instances where dominant individuals reinstate their position in the social hierarchy, mounting is a common behavior used to assert their position. Dominant individuals will mount submissive individuals of either sex to display their strength and power, and it’s important as it allows disputes to be settled without fighting.


Communication consists of facial expressions, vocalizations, gestures, and posturing. 

Gestures are used to indicate an individual’s intention to engage in or avoid a fight; those that indicate a threat mostly use facial elements: eyes, nose, forehead, eyebrows, ears, and mouth. The degree to which these facial elements are used depends on the intensity. A simple stare signals a low-intensity threat, and if the threat intensity increases, the mouth, eyebrows, and ears are used as well. Females form rounded-mouth threats, an indication of aggression and dominance towards other females. In contrast, bared teeth with the corners of the lips pulled back is a sign of submission. Teeth-chattering and lip-smacking are signs of appeasement, and relaxed, open-mouthed “play-faces” indicate happiness or contentment, especially among juveniles.

Among vocalizations, screams and grunts are directed at rival, trespassing troops. To alert troop members of possible danger, especially from predators, Barbary macaques use alarm calls of varying pitch and loudness. For example, a high-pitched “ah-ah!” call is sounded by a sentry (lookout) whenever an eagle is spotted. Upon hearing the sentry’s alarm call, all troop members quickly retreat to the lower forest canopy to hide. Barbary macaques are able to distinguish alarm calls from individuals within and outside their troop. Mothers are able to recognize the alarm calls of their offspring; the young often call out to their mothers at dusk, so they can be together at bedtime.

Posturing is often done to indicate submission to higher-ranking individuals. Most often, the submissive individual presents their hindquarters to the dominant individual.

Reproduction and Family

Breeding takes place in autumn and winter, during which females mate with practically every adult male in the troop. By making paternity difficult to determine with such promiscuous behavior, all of the males take part in caring for the young.

After a gestation period of around six months, females give birth to a single offspring in spring or early summer every one or two years; twins are rare. The young are weaned after 12 months. Females remain with their birth troop once they reach sexual maturity; males, however, leave and seek another troop to join. Females reach sexual maturity at four years of age, while males reach sexual maturity between four-and-a-half and seven years.

Ecological Role

The main ecological role Barbary macaques play in their environment is seed dispersal. Not only do they spread seeds through fecal deposits while traveling, but they also store and transport fruits in their cheek pouches. This can expand the fruit distribution and promote tree growth.

Barbary macaques also help their forest habitats by controlling insect populations and are a source of ecotourism for Morocco’s Ilfrane National Park. Such ecotourism provides wealth for the area in and around the park. 

Barbary macaques can be used as an indicator of forest quality, and the demographic differences between the macaque populations living in different areas are due to threats such as deforestation, human interference, and livestock overgrazing. 

Conservation Status and Threats

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Barbary macaque as Endangered (IUCN, 2016), appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and their populations are declining.

The primary threats in the North African populations are illegal logging and charcoal production, and poaching of infants and juveniles for the pet trade or entertainment use in tourist areas. Other threats include overgrazing by livestock, attacks from shepherd dogs, droughts, and various consequences stemming from tourism (for example, road accidents, garbage accumulation, and habitat degradation). Between 1995 and 2009, roughly 300 infant macaques were captured from the wild each year as part of the illegal pet trade.

Additionally, in Morocco, the macaques have been regarded as economic pests due to stripping bark from cedar trees (a survival strategy when water is scarce, or when a source of nutrients and minerals is unavailable in other locations). Bark-stripping lowers timber quality and volume, hence the economic impact.

Conservation Efforts

The Barbary macaque is listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between governments whose goal is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Measures have been taken to improve the conservation status of the Barbary macaque, including, but not limited to:

The creation of Ifrane National Park and development of its management plan to protect the macaques and their environment

• Increasing control against poaching and illegal trade, including the enforcement of laws against the capture of macaques

• Restoration of macaque populations and habitats in the Middle Atlas Mountains

More recently, Born to be Wild—a project currently run by Animal Advocacy and Protection (AAP) after being run by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) from 2017 to 2020—has been working on community engagement with the Moroccan public and authorities to combat the dangers to the Barbary macaque. Since its founding, there has been an average macaque population increase of 31.1%, over 30 schools in Morocco have been visited to raise awareness among children, and more than 50 farmers have attended the project’s community-wide meetings.

It is enlightening to hear of progress such as that highlighted by Born to be Wild, but the Barbary macaque remains endangered. With further outreach and education by projects such as Born to be Wild, hopefully one day the Barbary macaque may truly be saved from the threat of extinction.


Written by Sienna Weinstein, November 2023