Geographic Distribution and Habitat
The Gabon talapoin (Miopithecus ogouensis), also known as the northern talapoin, is a species of Old World monkey whose distribution closely follows the Ogooué River in Gabon, but whose range extends as far north as Cameroon and into the westernmost part of Congo. The Congo River is currently believed to be the species’ southern-most limit. Small and somewhat elusive, the full extent of its range is not yet certain, however, and may reach further south than previously estimated, and possibly in the form of subspecies.
Gabon talapoin are never found far from the banks of rivers or swamps where thick underbrush offers them cover and protection from predators.
The Gabon talapoin was long conflated with the Angolan, or southern, talapoin monkey (Miopithecus talapoin) found south of the Congo River. Though very similar in appearance and behaviors, the two are distinct species and should be treated as such.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
As Old World monkeys go, Gabon talapoins are a particularly small monkey species, with slight variations in size between the sexes. With an average head and body length of 13 inches (34 cm), males are only a little longer than females, who measure 11 inches (28 cm). These monkeys’ tails essentially double their overall lengths.
Weight varies depending on the individual but, overall, males weigh slightly more—on average 3 pounds (1.4 kg)—than females, at 2.8 pounds (1.3 kg).
This species’ average lifespan in the wild is currently unknown, but individuals have lived up to 28 years in captivity.
Talapoins are the smallest species of Old World monkeys. So small are they that, to any untrained eye, their agile bodies and petite round heads might be confused for certain New World monkeys, such as squirrel monkeys. Talapoins, however, are more directly related to other monkeys in their taxonomic order, Cerceopithecidae, found only on the African continent, by several millions of years.
Gabon talapoins sport greenish-gray fur, flecked here-and-there with stands of gold. A large light-colored bib sprawls out from under their round muzzles, blending with the whitish hair on their chests. Gold fur flares out in flamboyant patches around the mouth and brow. Though they may look strikingly similar to their Angolan talapoin cousins to the south, their skin is not as dark. This distinction is most notable on their large ears and in the bald patches around their eyes and mouth. A male may be distinguishable by his size alone—but more telling are his bluish genitals.
A Gabon talapoin eats a large variety of fruits but is not altogether frugivorous. A large staple of her diet—almost 40%—are insects and arthropods. Beetles, caterpillars, butterflies, ants, and spiders are easy to hunt down in the undergrowth along the river where she lives. She may also munch on certain leaves or flowers, but these are scant garnishings compared to her overall diet.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Gabon talapoins mostly stick to the dense undergrowth nearby their native river, close to their troop. The troop never travels far, finding the food and protection they need alongside, and in, the water. Whether foraging for fruit, hunting insects, or socializing, they go about their business very quietly. Being such a small species, it is important they remain inconspicuous lest a much larger predator should find them. In the event that one does, however, these monkeys are great swimmers and readily take to the water to escape pressing threats.
Gabon talapoins catch and eat freshwater shrimp and dig up African ginger root out of the ground.
Talapoins are equipped with special cheek pouches, a convenient place to store snacks for later consumption.
Some research suggests talapoin monkeys exhibit extremely pro-social, at times loving, behaviors towards offspring and members of their troop.
Groups of talapoins are often quite large, with some composed of one hundred members. In the early morning, members wake with the rest of their troop to forage for fruit. While foraging, however, the monkeys split into smaller groups. This practice makes it easier to keep track of everyone and draws less attention as they travel to separate foraging spots. Following their breakfasts, these sub-groups reconvene with each other to rest and socialize in the underbrush alongside the river or swamp where they live—until motivated to forage again in the late afternoon.
Come nightfall, the group sleeps close together in the dense vegetation along the river. Often, members find branches above the water to sleep on. If disturbed during the night, they can then drop straight into the river and swim to safety.
These large groups are composed of multiple males and females, who rarely interact except to mate. Some researchers have observed no evidence of any dominance hierarchy in this species the wild, but this requires further confirmation.
Much of the available research on talapoin monkeys has been conducted in captivity and, being decades old, often conflates the two talapoin (Miopithecus) species. Coordinating updated research in the wild is complicated further by this species’ small size and general elusiveness. As such, the finer details of these monkeys’ lives in the wild are not well understood at this time.
Like all primates, Gabon talapoins have developed many methods of communication. Clear, concise communication is crucial for primates’ survival, helping them to avoid and escape predators, to socialize and form bonds, and in order to mate.
A Gabon talapoin uses at least 11 distinct vocalizations. As she forages with her troop in the thick underbrush, a female talapoin makes a short “uh” sound, which may rise or fall in pitch, letting the others know of her whereabouts. Males make this call with far less frequency than females; infants and juveniles emit their own contact call, a “coo.”
Gabon talapoins have several alarm calls they can use when they sense something is amiss. For instance, a monkey may make a high-pitched, quick squeak to alert others of a threat. Upon hearing it, the entire troop responds with a similar squeak. A period of silence follows, during which everyone crouches, waiting to find out more about the threat. Different predators inspire a different alarm call, giving the monkeys more context, and thus allowing troop members to take more effective precautions while making their escape.
In the case of less extreme dangers, a Gabon talapoin makes a “ksk” sound, shorter and higher-pitched than a squeak call, sounding a lot like a chirp. This communicates that the individual is feeling wary of something in the environment, but that it is not necessarily a threat.
Research has shown that talapoins use an impressive repertoire of facial expressions and body posturing to communicate as well. These monkeys are capable of moving their eyebrows separate from their other facial features, giving them a means to transmit signals to each other not available to many other primates. Lab research has begun to parse what these expressions and postures may mean, but little has been studied about their use in the wild.
During estrus, a female talapoin develops a pink swelling around their genitals, signaling her readiness to mate. She may begin the ritual herself by squatting next to a male, inviting him to inspect her. If he is interested, she then stretches her legs and allows him to begin copulation. A male may also initiate mating, in which case he approaches a ready female with his penis erect. If interested herself, she allows him to proceed.
A single infant is born five to six months later. He or she comes into the world already quite well-developed. Over the next few months, the child grows very quickly. At six weeks, he is already eating solid food; by three months, he is already completely independent.
It is not exactly clear what their family cultures look like. Females take responsibility for providing infant care, with some evidence of allomothering taking place. Allomothering is when individuals other than the biological mother of an offspring perform the functions of a mother (as by caring for an infant temporarily).
The mating rituals specific to Gabon talapoins have been primarily studied in captivity and how they play out in the wild is not well researched at this time.
Though they do not travel far and wide, as avid fruit eaters, Gabon talapoins likely play an important role in the dispersal of seeds. Additionally, their insect-rich diet helps to keep local insect populations in check.
The Gabon talapoin is classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2017), appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. As is the case with most primates, their greatest threat is habitat loss and fragmentation fueled by the rapid conversion of forests by humans for agriculture and infrastructure and other projects.
Current trends show the overall population of Gabon talapoins decreasing. However, their local densities increase—sometimes even doubling—the nearer a group lives to a human settlement. It is possible that the decrease of predators in such areas helps to stabilize their numbers. Additionally, agriculture makes new sources of food available, in the form of cultivated crops, that the monkeys are all too happy to raid. A particular talapoin favorite is cassava root. After cassava is harvested, it must be soaked thoroughly before consumption to rid it of naturally occurring cyanide, a deadly poison. A common local practice is to leave the roots to leach in the river. Left out in the open like this, it becomes easily accessible to any hungry talapoin monkeys who happen to come around.
At this time, it is unclear what affect the monkeys’ crop raiding has on their relationship with local humans. In some areas, troops of Gabon talapoins once associated with certain villages are vanishing or have already vanished. Being such small monkeys, they are not typically targeted by hunters. However, as larger animals are becoming over-hunted, and farmers feel more driven to defend their crops, it may be that the practice of killing Gabon talapoins is becoming more common.
Gabon talapoin monkeys are found in several protected areas, but no specific conservation efforts for this species are currently underway. However, the species is already protected under international law, listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II and as Class B under the African Convention.
This species is small, elusive, and somewhat adaptable, giving them some significant natural protections. There is additional hope that populations of Gabon talapoin are more numerous than shown by current research, as previous survey work may have overlooked flooded forests and swamps where conducting accurate population surveys would be less convenient.
Natural protections and hope to find new populations are not enough, however. Proper conservation of Gabon talapoins requires conducting more thorough research of this species in the wild. Only with more accurate, complete, and up-to-date information can conservationists begin to understand how to go about saving them from extinction.
Written by Zachary Lussier, March 2021