GOLDEN SNUB-NOSED MONKEY
Geographic Distribution and Habitat
Endemic to a fragmented area along the Tibetan Plateau in southwestern China, the endangered golden snub-nosed monkey is one of the few primates who thrive in temperate montane forests. With snow blanketing her habitat for as long as four months in the winter, the golden snub-nosed monkey can withstand the coldest average temperatures of any non-human primate in the world.
They prefer deciduous broadleaved and mixed-evergreen coniferous primary forests, but will occupy secondary forest and shrub forest when necessary. Their habitat is often rugged, ranging from 3,937 to 13,123 ft (1,200-4,000 m) above sea level. Although they are content to live in the mountains throughout the year, a golden snub-nosed monkey will sometimes migrate to lower altitudes in winter, when temperatures can drop below freezing, to as low as 17 degrees Fahrenheit (-8 degrees Celsius).
China is home to the three subspecies of golden snub-nosed monkeys: R. r. hubeiensis, R. r. qinlingensis, and R. r. roxellana. (While an unidentified fourth subspecies has been reported anecdotally to exist in India, this remains the subject of debate in the scientific community.) The largest populations of golden snub-nosed monkeys live in the Woolong Natural Reserve in China’s Sichuan Province, but these Old World primates can also be found in the provinces of Gansu, Hubei, and Shaanxi. Much of the golden snub-nosed research conducted to date has taken place in the Shennongjia Nature Reserve in Hubei and the Baihe Nature Reserve in Sichuan.
Golden snub-nosed monkeys share their habitat with giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Such sympatry may help improve the odds of their survival. After all, they only benefit from the high-profile and relatively successful conservation efforts dedicated to helping the giant panda.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
Golden snub-nosed monkeys exhibit significant sexual dimorphism. On average, a male golden snub-nosed monkey weighs about 44 lbs (19.9 kg), with his female counterpart weighing in at only 27 lbs (12.2 kg). Likewise, males are longer than females, growing as tall as 26.8 in (68.0 cm), whereas females max out at about 20.4 in (51.8 cm). Weights are thought to fluctuate with the seasons, as well as between populations and habitats.
Generally speaking, a golden snub-nosed monkey’s tail length is about equal to that of its head and body length, however, of the three subspecies of golden snub-nosed monkeys, R. r. hubeiensis can be distinguished by a longer tail, which can grow to up to 125% of his head and body length. As seen with other Old World monkeys, their tail is not prehensile and cannot be used to help grasp branches as is often the case for New World monkeys.
Golden snub-nosed monkeys are thought to live about 20-25 years; in captivity, golden snub-nosed monkeys have lived past 23 years.
A society in which the members of a social group break off into smaller groups and then rejoin as a larger group.
Occurring or living in the same area; overlapping in distribution.
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Not to be outshined by the cuteness of his infamous giant panda neighbor, the golden snub-nosed monkey has a certain charm of his own. Males have a thick coat that is meant for weathering winter in style. Their fur is a beautiful, bright golden color, especially on their head and neck, and is accented with long black-gray guard hairs on their shoulders, upper arms, and back. Females share similar colorings, but their guard hair tends to appear brown-black.
Their namesake is derived, in part, from their flattened noses, which sit back from the muzzle with wide, forward-facing nostrils. Two flaps of skin sit above the high-arching nostrils; while the purpose of these flaps has not been studied, some theories suggest they may aid in protecting against frostbite during the long, cold winters.
The muzzle itself is white and hairless, with delicate pale blue colorings around the eyes. At the corners of his mouth, a male has unique wart-like growths that serve as an indicator of his sexual maturity. Scientists have not yet studied the function of these warts, but some theorize that they may produce secretions useful in communication. Whatever the role, they are not seen in the females or in any other members of the Rhinopithecus genus. Males also feature bright genitals, with a blue-white scrotum and black penis.
It’s worth noting that pelage differences help scientists distinguish the three subspecies of golden snub-nosed monkey. For example, R. r. roxellana features fur that is less vibrant—a golden-red with black-brown shoulders and limbs. R. r. qinlingensis has the most brilliant gold pelage, whereas R. r. hubeiensis has the palest fur of the three.
With their habitat blanketed in snow from December to March, the golden snub-nosed monkey has learned to modulate their diets based on the season and food availability. They are expert herbivores (with a plant-based diet), adept at foraging in the middle and upper forest strata. Flowers, fruits, buds, and leaves are available in the warmer April-November months, but they’ll settle for low-protein lichens in winter when they have also been known to eat snow. Pine needles and bark make for fair dining year-round, and fatty seeds help her build up a layer of fat to sustain them during the long winter months. Dead trees also play an important role in their diet, as they are a much better host for lichens than live trees. When necessary, the monkeys forage for bark in the lower canopy and for herbs and grasses on the forest floor.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Golden snub-nosed monkeys are highly arboreal, spending more than 97% of their time moving through the mid-to-upper canopy by quadrupedal walking (on all fours), brachiating, leaping, and climbing. Researchers note that these monkeys are better described as semi-arboreal when observed in captivity, where travel on the ground includes quadrupedal walking, trotting, and some bipedalism (walking on two legs).
The golden snub-nosed monkey’s day is divided into two periods of travel, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, with a siesta at noon involving sedentary feeding, grooming, social bonding, and play. Juveniles and infants will form groups of as many as 40 individuals while the adults rest and feed.
Most daily activity occurs in the trees, but it’s not uncommon to see ground feeding. Between the sexes, adult males spend more of their time on the ground than their female counterparts or juveniles.
When on the move or foraging, males will position themselves to protect the front and rear of the troop, with the family units safely in the middle. When a threat occurs, dozens of males will come together to ward off the danger with vocalizations and aggressive displays, while others will flee to the safety of the tree canopy.
A compliment of the highest order:
French naturalist Henri Milne-Edwards is said to have named the golden snub-nosed monkey after the mistress of Suleiman the Magnificent, a 16th century sultan in the Ottoman Empire. Roxellana-the-mistress is said to have had a snub nose and reddish gold hair. Golden snub-nosed monkeys are also known as Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkeys.
All in the (Roosevelt) family:
In 1929, the oldest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt III, reportedly collected a “specimen” of the golden snub-nosed monkey during a zoological expedition to southeast Asia, which was sponsored by the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and co-organized by his brother, Kermit Roosevelt.
The structure of golden snub-nosed society is up for some debate, although all research suggests that they are highly social primates who find safety in numbers. Large group sizes help golden snub-nosed monkeys fend off predators. Some scientists note that these monkeys will come together in a three-tiered structure: first, in small groups of 20 to 30 individuals in winter, which then join into larger troops of up to 200 in the summer. In turn, several of these troops will combine to form bands of up to 600 individuals. Other research suggests that golden snub-nosed monkeys have a two-tiered structure consisting of the smaller groups, which then come together as one larger troop.
In either scenario, groups retain smaller polygamous family units led by one dominant male around four females and their young. (It should be noted that in addition to the multi-female/one-male units, golden snub-nosed monkeys also may form all-male units comprising four to seven individuals.) The gathering of the smaller groups into a large troop and then dispersing may be triggered by season, human disturbance, movement in snow, and food availability; researchers, however, do not agree on whether this movement should be classified as a classic fission-fusion social system, where troops fluctuate in size.
At night, they often huddle together in clusters, which helps conserve heat during cool weather. Females and their offspring usually huddle together, but males sleep separately.
For a highly vocal species, golden snub-nosed monkeys have a curious aspect to their communications: they can vocalize without moving their bodies or face, much like a skilled ventriloquist.
Common calls include whines and shrills, usually used by males and females when feeding. Males are known for their long, wavering whines when grooming and eating, as well as short cries. Females specialize in “ee-tcha” sounds, often uttered in response to males’ whining, squeaks, and squeals. Chorus-like vocalizations are common among groups; less frequently, both sexes will grunt, moan, and sigh.
In total, researchers have identified 18 different types of vocalizations among golden snub-nosed monkeys, including calls to express amazement or alarm as well as contentment and urgent warning. Use of physical stances, such as an open or closed mouth and staring, are also common.
As a polygynous primate, a male golden snub-nosed monkey has the exclusive right to mate with the multiple females in his group. However, during mating season, it is the female who most often takes the lead, indicating her readiness for copulation with what might be called coy behavior—she will initiate eye contact with the male and then run a short distance away. In a less coy move, she also may signal her interest in mating by lying with her head hanging down, her forearms stretched out, legs curled up, and tail hanging freely. Sometimes, she’ll angle her genitals toward the male. She’ll repeat this behavior many times throughout the day, as the male will typically show interest in her advances only about half of the time; successful mating occurs in a small percentage of unions.
Once pregnant, the female will give birth in about seven months to one offspring. Mothers provide care for infants almost exclusively, although males have been observed grooming infants. In the first few days after birth, a baby is nursed by her mother and will remain with her until she is about three weeks old. By one year of age, the baby will be weaned. A female will reach sexual maturity by four to five years and will remain with her natal unit for life. A male reaches sexual maturity by the time he’s seven years old, but he’ll have left his natal group long before; his father will force him out of the natal group by the age of three.
As herbivores, golden snub-nosed monkeys they can affect plant growth. Like other monkeys who are herbivores, they disperse seeds through their feces—thereby helping to regenerate their forest habitat. In addition, they may play a role in local food webs, serving as prey for carnivores like goshawks (Accipiter gentilis), golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), wolves (Canis lupus), leopards (Panthera pardus), and tigers (Panthera tigris amoyensis).
Unlike its giant panda neighbor, the golden snub-nosed monkey remains classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2015). The monkey appeared on the International Primatological Society’s 2017 list of the world’s 25 most endangered primate sprecies.
Current estimates peg total populations of golden snub-nosed monkeys at about 15,000 individuals. Their numbers have fallen more than 50 percent over the past 40 years due to deforestation. The IUCN notes that populations continue to decline, although some areas are now seeing a slower rate of decline.
In addition to deforestation and habitat degradation, the golden snub-nosed monkey remains threatened by hunters, who seek his golden pelt for traditional medicine, fur, and meat.
While the golden snub-nosed monkey benefits from protections put in place specifically for the giant panda, she also is the beneficiary of China’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1989. In addition, a number of conservation areas exist today that provide protection, including the Baihe Nature Reserve, Foping Nature Reserve, Shennongjia Nature Reserve, and Wanglang Nature Reserve.
The golden snub-nosed monkey is listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ (CITES) Appendix I, its listing of most endangered wildlife.
- Holland, Jennifer S. “The monkey who went into the cold: the heavy fur of china’s snub-nosed monkey is a boon in subzero winters. Its quirky face could help too.” National Geographic, Feb. 2011, p. 126+.
- “Identity Crisis.” Open, 3 Aug. 2011
- Lopata, Peg. “The Sichuan snub-nosed monkey: China’s golden treasure.” Faces: People, Places, and Cultures, Feb. 2013, p. 6+.
Written by Christine Regan Davi, May 2018