Macaca sylvanus

Geographic Distribution and Habitat 

Barbary macaques reside in the North African countries of Morocco and Algeria. The majority of the population—75 percent—is found in Morocco’s Middle and High Atlas Mountains and in the Rif Mountains. A smaller population lives in Algeria’s Tellian Atlas Mountains. They are extinct in Tunisia.

A separate, and introduced, population of Barbary macaques resides in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar, giving this Old World 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.

All Gibraltar Barbary macaques are descended from North African populations of Barbary macaques. The monkeys are thought to have been originally brought to Gibraltar by the conquering Moors (northwestern African Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent, who occupied southern Iberia, including Spain and Portugal, between 711 and 1492), who kept them as pets. When an epidemic wiped out the Barbary macaques during the 1900s, Gibraltar authorities reintroduced the monkeys from North Africa.

In North Africa, fragmented and isolated populations of Barbary macaques inhabit cedar and oak forests, including cork; they prefer mid- and high-altitude forests. The monkeys can also be found in scrub forest and cliff habitats that offer vegetation. Their North African climate is hot and dry during the summer months and cold and snowy during the winter.

The Moroccan population was estimated in 2004 at 6,000 to 10,000 individuals.

In Algeria, the number of Barbary macaques is unknown, although a survey from more than 30 years ago put the number at about 5,500 individuals.

Barbary macaque populations are declining in both countries.

The number of Barbary macaques living in Gibraltar totals about 230 individuals who live in six troops, ranging between 25 and 70 members, in the Upper Rock area of the Gibraltar Nature Reserve.

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

Size, Weight, and Lifespan

Male Barbary macaques have a heady-to-body length that ranges from 21.6 to 27.6 in (55 to 70 cm); they weigh between 15.4 and 26.5 lbs (7 and 12 kg).

Female Barbary macaques have a head-to-body length that ranges from 18 to 21.6 in (45 to 55 cm); they weigh between 11 and 20 lbs (5 and 9 kg).

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

In the wild, Barbary macaques can live 20 years or more.


A yellowish-brown to gray silky, thick fur coat covers the Barbary macaque’s body; its underside is a lighter shade. The monkey’s narrow nose and dark powder-pink face are free of fur. Like all macaques, the Barbary macaque is equipped with powerful jaws, long canine teeth, and cheek pouches (used for storing snacks) beside the lower teeth that extend down the sides of the neck. Front limbs are longer than hind legs.

The Barbary macaque’s lack of a viable tail (officially, it is known as a vestigial tail, meaning that evolution has seen fit to render it a useless stub) has led to the incorrect characterization as Barbary ape. Apes have no tails. However, all Barbary macaques are monkeys—not apes.


Fruits, flowers, seeds, seedlings, leaves, buds, stems, roots, and bulbs are diet staples of the Barbary macaque. A plethora of insects and spiders, along with snails, earthworms, and sometimes tadpoles are also on the menu. During winter months when food is scarce, Barbary macaques will forage for bark and evergreen needles.

Behavior and Lifestyle

Barbary macaques are diurnal, meaning that they are most active during daylight hours. Their locomotion is quadrupedal; that is, they walk on all four feet. Being both arboreal and terrestrial, the monkeys will forage for food both in trees and on the ground.

Fun Facts

Prior to the arrival of the Ice Age, Barbary macaques inhabited the Mediterranean coasts and most of Europe, as far north as Germany and the British Isles. The skull of a Barbary macaque, dating back to the third century BC, was discovered during excavation during the 1970s in Northern Ireland.

Legend has it that as long as Barbary macaques exist in Gibraltar, the region will remain under British rule.

When the Gibraltar Barbary macaques were under care of the British Army, an officer was appointed to supervise their welfare; a food allowance of fruit, vegetables and nuts was included in the budget. Births were heralded in true military fashion. New arrivals were named after British dignitaries and high-ranking officers. Sick or injured monkeys requiring medical attention were taken to Royal Naval Hospital Gibraltar and received the same treatment as would an enlisted service man.

Daily Life and Group Dynamics

Outgoing and social, Barbary macaques live in mixed-gender groups (known as troops) of 12 to more than 60 individuals, with an average of 24 members. 

Troops are matriarchal; females hold primary power. Hierarchy is determined by lineage to the female leader. Males form coalitions with other males, most often with those to whom they are closely related. Reciprocity plays a lesser role; nevertheless, males tend to help other males who may have helped them in the past. 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.


Communication consists of facial expressions and vocalizations. Females form rounded-mouth threats, an indication of aggression and dominance towards other females. In contrast, bared teeth are a sign of submission. Lip-smacking and teeth-chattering are signs of appeasement. And relaxed, open-mouthed “play-faces” indicate happiness or contentment.

Screams and grunts are directed at trespassing troops. To alert troop members of possible danger, especially from a predator, Barbary macaques use alarm calls of varying pitch and loudness. As an example, a high-pitched “ah-ah!” call is sounded by a sentry (lookout) monkey whenever an eagle is spotted. Upon hearing the sentry’s alarm call, all the monkeys 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.

Reproduction and Family

When it comes to mating, females appear to allow dominant males special privilege. But the “fairer sex” of this species is far from monogamous; females mate with virtually every adult male in the troop. This promiscuous behavior, however, serves more than a hedonistic urge: it serves an ecological purpose in helping to ensure the species’s survival. Because paternity is difficult to determine, all the males in a troop participate in rearing the young—who might or might not be their own offspring.

After a gestation period of about five months, females give birth to a single offspring every one or two years; twins are rare. The young are weaned after 12 months, and reach sexual maturity between 2.5 and 4 years old in females and between 4.5 and 7 years old in males. Females remain with their natal (birth) groups once they attain sexual maturity; males, however, leave their group and seek another to join.

As with other primates, Barbary macaques spend a lot of time grooming one another, a pastime that helps to form strong social bonds.

Ecological Role

Barbary macaques are important to the seed dispersal of their environment, and perhaps to pest control since they consume insects. Their large cheek pouches allow them to carry fruit long distances away from where they are found, helping to spread the seeds over this distance. They also help by spreading seeds in their fecal deposits throughout their environment.  

Conservation Status and Threats

Barbary macaques are classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN, 2016), appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and their populations are decreasing. Habitat loss and illegal wildlife trafficking are the primary threats faced by North African Barbary macaques. Logging, clear-cutting forests for grazing of livestock, cannabis cultivation, and encroaching human settlement have eaten up the monkeys’ habitat. And an estimated 300 infant macaques are kidnapped and smuggled into Europe, annually, to be sold as pets or tourist attractions.

Political unrest, drought, poorly managed tourism, and hunting pose additional threats. In Morocco, the monkeys have long been regarded as economic pests because they strip bark from cedar trees, prompting authorities to propose population culls.

Conservation Efforts

Barbary macaques 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.

In Algeria, Barbary macaques are protected in several national parks; however, few active conservation policies exist elsewhere in the country. Proposals to reintroduce the species to Kouf National Park in Libya and Tunisia have been suggested.

In Morocco, the Barbary Macaque Awareness Conservation (BMAC) organization, founded in 2009, works closely with local communities to ensure the monkeys’ future. From combating the illegal wildlife trade, developing sustainable conservation, implementing education initiatives for children, and improving public perception of the Barbary Macaque, BMAC is committed to protecting the species through its “inclusive conservation” approach. (See

Dr. Sian Waters, primate researcher, executive director and founder of BMAC, spoke in a 2015 interview of BMAC’s challenges. “Apart from trying to obtain funding for a very bland colored macaque, our main problem is being taken seriously at all levels of Moroccan society. The macaques are objects of derision, and trying to discuss them with groups of shepherds initially led to much amusement and mockery of the macaques and one another.” Dr. Waters realized that to be most effective, BMAC would need to begin simply by having a conversation with local people.

Today, Dr. Waters is hopeful for the future of Morocco’s Barbary macaques. “[T]he Moroccan public enjoys learning about Barbary macaques,” she said. “Together, with the burgeoning animal welfare movement in Morocco, we believe that public opinion will eventually make the commercial exploitation of macaques and other wildlife socially unacceptable.” BMAC is planning a research and education facility that will welcome people and offer programs to learn more about the Barbary macaque, and further BMAC’s mission to protect the species.

In Gibraltar, Barbary macaques are a symbol of that nation’s tourism. These semi-wild monkeys have historically received a level of care and protection, originally from the British Army and today from the Ministry for the Environment and the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society. Veterinary care is provided by the Gibraltar Veterinary Clinic (GVC).

Each day, the monkeys are given fresh water, vegetables, fruits, and seeds to supplement their own foraging.

As a means of identification, each monkey is tattooed and micro-chipped. All monkeys are photographed and their individual characteristics are catalogued. Individuals are humanely captured on a regular basis so that their health can be assessed; measurements of body size and weight are taken before they are released. A census is conducted once each year to tabulate data and monitor reproductive success of the entire population.



Written by Kathleen Downey, May 2016