Monkey see, monkey facepalm

By Ed Yong | February 2, 2011 5:56 pm

A group of English mandrill monkeys has started doing facepalms. The monkeys live in a zoo in Colchester, England, and eight of them frequently raise one or both of their hands to cover their eyes. They might be the only ones in the world who perform this distinctive gesture.

Liz Butcher, a former keeper at the zoo, was the first to notice the gesture in a female mandrill called Milly, way back in 1999. Milly still does it and it’s caught on among seven other individuals within the group (out of 23), without any training or encouragement from the other keepers.

Mark Laidre from Princeton University has now documented the facepalms (he calls them “eye covering”) in great detail. After searching the literature, talking to field scientists, and contacting keepers from 18 other zoos around the world, he’s convinced that the gesture is unique to the Colchester mandrills. Many of these other communities have been watched closely for decades. The odds that everyone just missed the gestures are low.

But why are they doing it? It’s unlikely that they’ve found something stupid on the Internet. Nor are the mandrills trying to block out light. They’ll make the same gesture in the shade or under overcast skies and only a third of the facepalms happened in direct sunlight. They’re not trying to wipe anything away, for the facepalms can last for as long as 17 minutes.

The facepalms didn’t happen in any specific social context either, such as face-offs between two individuals. The monkeys always did it when they were sitting or lying down. But they weren’t sleeping – they would “frequently glance back and forth, apparently peeking through cracks between their fingers to survey the locations of other community members”. If a dominant mandrill drew near, they would immediately withdraw their hands and move away.

Instead, Laidre thinks that they’re used the gesture as a signal for avoiding social interactions. They’re the monkey equivalent of a “Do Not Disturb” sign.  Typically, the mandrills covered their eyes when they were alone, and those that did so were more likely to be left alone (compared to similarly posed monkeys whose eyes were uncovered). They were also more likely to cover their eyes in the middle of their enclosure, where they were most likely to be disturbed.

Laidre also found that the lowest-ranking mandrills were most likely to make facepalms. Milly, for example, was second from bottom in the mandrill pecking order. It suits these subordinates to minimise their disturbances from other dominant members of the group, who might be prone to attack them. Indeed, Milly covered her eyes most often when she was in the company of her vulnerable children.

Why is the facepalm unique to Colchester’s mandrills? There’s no reason to think that the colony is special. They’re a genetically diverse lot that live in an enclosure very similar to those in other zoos. And it’s unlikely that the Colchester keepers inadvertently passed the movement onto their charges (say, by wiping their brow) because monkeys, unlike apes, won’t readily mimic human gestures.

Instead, Paidre thinks that it’s a sign of monkey culture – a unique tradition that started with Milly and has passed on to other members of the group. It’s possibly telling that some of the other eye-covering mandrills have added an element to the gesture that Milly never does – they raise their elbows in the air while blocking their eyes.

It’s also reasonable to think that Milly did indeed pass on the facepalm to her peers, although Paidre hasn’t actually done any experiments to show that the mandrills can do this. Such experiments can are tricky but the Colchester bunch might provide a good starting point. If one of them is ever transferred to a different zoo, it will be fascinating to see if their gesture carries with them.

It’s a reasonable explanation, but Paidre has a lot of work to do before he can confirm it. He’ll need to study the effect that the facepalm has on other mandrills, perhaps by playing footage of the gesture to them. Are dominant individuals really less likely to bother an eye-covering subordinate? Would a mandrill take its hand away if a barrier is erected between it and its peers? Clearly, the eye-covering mandrills of Colchester are ones to watch.

Reference: Laidre, M. (2011). Meaningful Gesture in Monkeys? Investigating whether Mandrills Create Social Culture PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0014610

More monkey business:


Comments (11)

  1. Lovely stuff Ed. It made me laugh and then it made me think so I assume this will be in the running for an Ig :)

  2. Hrm, I wonder if the close quarters in which they are kept in a zoo setting makes this gesture useful or helps alleviate stress where it wouldn’t in a natural setting. I definitely feel like doing this when I’m in a crowded, confined space for a long period of time!

  3. Brian Too

    I will try this at work. I will!

    Milly’s on to something here.

  4. Fascinating observations, and it is great that Mark Laidre has been following this. The eye covering reminds me of several things, all of which I am sure Mark is aware of: the bonobo games with eye covering and staggering around their enclosures, observed by Frans deWaal; the “hide playface” (done in front of the mouth) gesture of Zura the gorilla, studied by Tanner (that’s me) and Byrne (1993), which was a means of avoiding interactions, but not a gesture shared by other group members; and the invented “unattention” gesture of the gorilla Koko, also an eye covering gesture. And perhaps the “nosewipe” or “facewipe” gesture of many primate species, including monkeys, that is usually employed in an avoidance situation, may be relevant. So the production of some kind of avoidance gesture may be universal through a wide range of primate species, and even other mammals. There is certainly more followup to be done on this whole topic, as the article points out; and careers have been made on less! It is of interest not just as gesture, but of course because of the questions raised about social transmission and imitation.

  5. Mic

    I wouldn’t try to address a social meaning to this behavior though… it could have spread from a starting individual, ok, that’s very interesting! but then monkeys could repeat it just because they find it fun or relaxing…! that’s something that doesn’t imply social awareness. I would be careful before talking about meaningful gestures.

  6. @Mic – The “it could just be for fun” argument comes up a lot in such studies (see earlier post about masturbating squirrels), but I actually think that this apparently simpler explanation is the lazier one. “Just for fun or relaxing” doesn’t account for the differences in the behaviour, e.g. between dominants and subordinates, between monkeys alone and monkeys with babies etc. And as Joanne notes, there is a rich vein of social gestures among monkeys and apes.

    @Tracey – Good point about the enclosed settings, although that still raises the issue of why other zoo-kept mandrills don’t do the same thing. Clearly, facepalms aren’t something that comes naturally to mandrills.

  7. I think “why other zoo-kept mandrills don’t do the same thing” could have an explanation as simple as: no young female has thought of it yet. At some time in history, no monkeys were washing their potatoes but one group, no humans were making fire but one group. Stuff starts.

    I really like Tracey’s idea about stress-relief. Mic might note that finding something “relaxing” would be, well, stress-relieving!

    The whole thing reminds me of regular bus-riders who open a newspaper or a book as soon as they sit down to give themselves some isolation from the other passengers.

  8. Kai

    Interesting! But maybe that particular Zoo’s setting/environment is somehow more stressful than other places are, so the animals there may need some “time off” and which would explain the occurrence of this behaviour at this place alone. Or maybe the have got some eye problems – a disease perhaps that spread through that group. Was any of this checked?

  9. Dave

    In Beijing I saw lots of people doing this in busy public places. Our guide explained that it’s a way of shutting out the outside world to gain a bit of mental space. Makes sense you’d need that in one of the biggest cities on the planet. I wouldn’t guess it has the same meaning vis a vis social hierarchy, but perhaps the personal experience is similar.

  10. Andy_T

    Should not be too much of a problem to teach the gesture to primates in other zoos….

    … will be watching for news about other zoos where this phenomenon is observed….

  11. lee

    I taught my dog this trick after seeing the jean luc picard picture on facebook. If you say facepalm he would lie down and put both his paws over his nose.

    It was really funny at first but after a while we forgot about it and never got him to do it again. About 6 months later I was really shouting at him aggresively and he cowered down and face palmed.

    Now he always facepalms if he is being disciplined. When I take him to the beach for a walk he facepalms when it’s time to go home. He will also facepalm if you tell him to do something he doesn’t want to do. He also does it if you give him food he doesn’t like.

    I think it’s a good gesture to teach animals because it allows them to communicate with you a lot better.

    Basically it’s his way of saying “I don’t want to do that”. The strange thing is if I say facepalm he will no longer do the gesture on command whereas before he started using the gesture he’d do it every time you say facepalm.

    The dog is a short haired tri colour border collie, 9 years old.

    It’s really easy to teach too just tell them lie down, when they are lying down take their paws and put it in the face palm position and say facepalm. Keep doing it until they do it on their own and then give them a treat. It might take a few hours.


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