animal planet

Macaques in Bandipur have learnt how to beg visitors for food, say researchers

While adults threaten visitors or snatch food, young macaques make eye contact and extend their hand in a ‘begging’ gesture.

The visitor information centre at Bandipur Tiger Reserve is often a stage for a lot of monkey-human drama, with two troupes of bonnet macaques jostling with thronging tourists. Adult monkeys take centre stage, using a direct approach to get at food – they simply scare humans into giving up their food.

Younger monkeys on the sidelines take a different approach. They try to make eye contact with a human carrying food, and when their eyes meet, the monkey extends its hand, palm up, as if to receive food. This food requesting behaviour is sometimes punctuated with a soft coo call, and if needed the monkey orients its body to remain in the human’s field of vision, to draw attention to itself.

“The hand-extension gesture is a completely novel gesture for wild monkeys. Certain macaque individuals have been seen to show this gesture towards human caregivers [in captivity] but it has never before been seen in a wild monkey and used in a natural context,” said Anindya Sinha, professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies and senior author of the study reporting the behaviour. “In that sense, it is definitely a new gesture.”

The novel hand extension gesture shown by bonnet macaques at Bandipur. Photo credit: Adwait Deshpande
The novel hand extension gesture shown by bonnet macaques at Bandipur. Photo credit: Adwait Deshpande

Over a period of four months, Adwait Deshpande and Shreejata Gupta from Sinha’s research group watched the two troops of bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata) that reside at the reception area in Bandipur National Park. Focussing on the larger, more dominant troop, which interacted with people a lot more and displayed these behaviours more frequently, he managed to record 86 natural ‘chats’ between macaques and tourists.

A mix of multiple signals

The authors have teased apart the food requesting behaviour into four components. First, the hand extension gesture, which is being documented for the first time in a wild monkey species.

Second, a soft coo call for which the researchers could not assign a clear purpose. The monkeys produced the sound when humans approached carrying food, and the researchers speculate that the call could be to establish contact with a human target, to convey intent to the human, or talk to itself to maintain motivation.

The researchers also observed that these two key behavioural components, the coo call and hand extension gesture, were only used by the Bandipur bonnets when interacting with humans. Specifically, humans carrying food!

The third component is orientation behaviour, where the macaques oriented themselves to stay in the humans’ field of vision, to attract attention. The fourth component is audience monitoring – the monkeys kept watching the human target while requesting food, and stopped only after they got the food.

One of the human-bonnet ‘chats’. Photo credit: Adwait Deshpande
One of the human-bonnet ‘chats’. Photo credit: Adwait Deshpande

Only juvenile bonnet macaques showed this food requesting behaviour, never adults. Adults just snatched food from tourists or scared the tourists by threatening aggressively, observed the authors. What the juveniles were showing in this behaviour was not aggression, but “a sort of begging behaviour, which is highly unusual in bonnet macaques”, write the authors in the paper.

They surmise that the juveniles are using this behaviour as a strategy to supplement their food. They are competing with adult macaques for the same resources; being smaller and generally more afraid of humans, they have evolved a different plan of action.

There is variation even within a troop – not all juveniles showed food requesting behaviour. “One of the reasons – though we haven’t studied this formally – could be personality differences,” said Sinha in an interview with Mongabay-India. “When we do our studies we find some individuals tend to be more tolerant to us, they will approach and try to groom us; some are shy; yet others are very aggressive, even from a distance they will keep threatening us. Those who are more comfortable with people tend to show this behaviour more than others.”

The researchers also conducted field experiments on four juvenile macaques, to check whether the attentive state of the humans having contact was necessary to get a behavioural response. During the experiments, trained volunteers approached the test macaques with food in their hands, maintaining eye contact, or not. (Note: no macaques were fed during the course of these experiments.)

Both from the natural observations and field experiments, it was evident that macaques performed the hand extension behaviour more frequently when there was eye contact.

“The coo call was done even when macaques were following the human being, irrespective of whether the person with food looked at the macaque or looked away,” said Sinha. “On the other hand, the hand extension gesture would appear only when the person was looking at an animal.”

The flexible use of these behavioural components by the bonnet macaques “illustrates the inherent capacity of bonnet macaques, to develop and employ novel behavioural strategies, reaffirming the remarkable behavioural flexibility and the adaptive cognitive abilities of this species”, write the authors in the press release.

Charlotte Canteloup from the University of Lausanne, who was not involved in the study, agreed. “Developing such flexibility in the communication allows animals to communicate more efficiently and [in this case] to maximise their food intake. Macaques are in competition for food with [other macaques], and they probably learned from past interactions with humans that they can have food from them, and have developed such interspecific communication.”

Why these particular signals?

The coo call is used by bonnet macaques as a form of communication between them, but has never been reported as a mode of communication with humans outside captive conditions, write the authors in the paper.

“Soft coo calls are known from macaques, they have never been reported in bonnet macaques,” said Sinha. “The current form of the call may have been co-opted from the much-louder lost call that bonnet macaques often give when they are isolated from their troop. In that sense, it is a rather novel call for the species.”

“Whatever be the origin, they have co-opted this call to attract people,” added Sinha.

Regarding the hand extension gesture, Sinha said, “The monkeys are most probably reaching for the food they cannot get at otherwise, and it gets reinforced when someone gives them food. This behaviour is never used with each other within the same species because bonnet macaques do not share food.”

Why they started using this gesture to humans remains a mystery, and will probably remain a mystery. “Can it be that the macaques saw humans reach out for food with each other? We will never know,” said Sinha.

Nailing the right signal. Photo credit: Sreejata Gupta.
Nailing the right signal. Photo credit: Sreejata Gupta.

Sindhu Radhakrishna, a primate biologist at NIAS, said “maybe there is no need to think about the initial reasons for this behaviour. It could be as simple as ‘I did this and I got this’.”

“We can also examine monkey-human interactions from another angle. The authors have looked at the behaviour from the aspect of monkeys communicating with humans. But, the bonnets are also acting in a specific manner to elicit a particular response from humans,” she said. “A lot of us have encountered aggressive rhesus macaques and bonnet macaques in other areas. They have figured out that aggression works – humans get scared and drop their food. In this case, the young bonnet macaques have figured out that hand extension works.”

Why Bandipur?

“The reason the behaviour has ‘appeared’ in Bandipur, is because we were there,” said Sinha, laughing.

“After publishing this work, I’ve had people approach me saying they’ve seen macaques show this behaviour. It may be true across species, it may take on different forms – but nobody has bothered to document it,” he said.

Both Radhakrishna and Narayan Sharma, assistant Professor at Cotton College Guwahati, who studies primates in Northeast India, agree. “I guess such behaviours might be widespread but we need long-term and intense observations to record them,” said Sharma.

As part of a long-term animal behaviour project at Bandipur, Sinha’s group has been monitoring about 30 troops – consisting of about 1800 individuals – along the Mysore-Ooty Highway for the last 18 years. The researchers have seen either the coo call, or the hand extension, or both in five or six troops at different points in time.

A bonnet macaque strutting along at Bandipur. Photo credit: Manoj K/Wikimedia Commons
A bonnet macaque strutting along at Bandipur. Photo credit: Manoj K/Wikimedia Commons

Sinha has observed some components of this food requesting behaviour in bonnet macaques in other areas. The team saw both behaviours – the coo call and hand extension – expressed together for the first time in 2013. “By the time Adwait [Deshpande] joined the project and visited Bandipur in 2016, he could see about 17 or 18 juveniles using this complex behaviour, out of the 30 or so who were there,” said Sinha. “We haven’t really analysed the trajectory, but the behaviour spread fairly rapidly.”

A precursor to language?

Intentional communication is the display of communication signals that are sensitive to the state of the receiver, involving the cognitive skills of assessing the attention state of the audience, and modifying the signal appropriately.

This ability is thought to be the forerunner of human language, and studying intentional communication in non-human primates (monkeys and apes) can provide us with a window to examine the origins of one of our most complex behaviours, human language.

The authors write that this study is the first (and as of now the only one) to document intentional communication using gestures in wild populations of a monkey species; most studies of this kind tend to focus on great apes. Earlier studies that document intentional communication in non-ape primate species like macaques, have all been in captivity.

Intentionality is described by four different criteria, and the authors have described how these behaviours satisfy these criteria by using an example we are all familiar with – going to a restaurant when hungry to get a snack.

Just as we would go to a particular restaurant and give our order to a waiter at a restaurant, the bonnets request food using the hand extension behaviour only from people holding a visible item of food in their hands; they do not show this behaviour in any other context. This is the first criteria of intentionality – a signal used for communication to a recipient is modified by various factors like the presence of food.

The second criterion is the sensitivity of the signaller to the attention state of the audience. At the restaurant, we need to get the attention of the waiter to give the order; the bonnets perform hand extension only when the target human is making eye contact.

Portrait of a bonnet macaque. Photo credit: Dhruvaraj S/Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of a bonnet macaque. Photo credit: Dhruvaraj S/Wikimedia Commons

At a restaurant, we sometimes walk up to the waiter to get him or her to notice you. This is the third criterion for intentionality – manipulating the attention of the recipient. Bonnets at Bandipur do this by orienting themselves in the line of vision of the human they are targeting.

The macaques also monitor the response of the target humans, like how we monitor the waiter at the restaurant, satisfying the fourth criterion of intentionality. Finally, the macaques only show the signals until they get the food item; just as we bother the waiter only until we get the food – this is the final criterion for intentional communication.

“I agree that the intentional communicative behaviours they recorded in wild bonnet macaques is one of the first instances of such behaviours recorded in a wild population, especially in monkeys,” said Canteloup. “Studies on intentionality of communication previously focused on great apes species, neglecting monkeys, it is then really interesting to find similar results in a [distantly related] species like the bonnet macaque.”

A non-ape primate has evolved a ‘behavioural innovation’ that has allowed them to survive in a novel environment created by humans. The communication signal is aimed at members of another species, and never toward other macaques. Macaques do not typically share food, they tend to hoard and guard.

“There is no way this behaviour would be rewarded if directed toward another macaque, so how did they arrive at this signal to show humans? We don’t know,” Sinha said. “One can imagine this behaviour getting positively reinforced and spreading among the troop, but why the first innovative individual raised his/her hand will always remain a mystery.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.