[an error occurred while processing this directive]

More to Explore

Did You Know?
Related Links
NGS Resources

On Assignment

On Assignment

Kings of the Hill?
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

Zoom In

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer's technical notes.

Zoom In Thumbnail 1
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Zoom In Thumbnail 2
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Zoom In Thumbnail 3
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Zoom In Thumbnail 4
Click to ZOOM IN >>


Kings of the Hill?

Map Thumbnail
Click to enlarge >>

By Virginia MorellPhotographs by Michael Nichols

In a male-dominated world, a female-run society is decidedly refreshing. Check out gelada monkeys—but don't mess with the queens: They bite.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

Pete was having a rotten day. His left hand was swollen and oozing pus, forcing him to limp on his three good limbs. He had trouble feeding himself, and he couldn't groom his four female consorts. And now a handsome young bachelor was flirting with them. Could it get any worse? "It can, and if it does, Pete will lose his family," said Chadden Hunter, an Australian wildlife biologist who studies geladas—grass-eating, baboon-size primates found only in the mountains of Ethiopia. This was exactly the kind of gelada behavior he had hoped to show me when he invited me to his mountaintop study site: a male fighting to retain his position. Hunter has observed numerous such takeover battles among his study population and generally refrains from taking sides. There was only one problem: Hunter liked Pete. "I've watched him for four years, and I hate to see this happen."
A few moments later a line of young bachelor geladas charged among the grazing primates, yelping a challenge. Their honey-colored manes ruffled in the wind, their canines flashed in the light, and they snapped their long tufted tails up and over their backs. All eyes—gelada and human—followed their show.
"That's meant for Pete," Hunter whispered, "and his females." And Pete seemed to know it. As best he could, the injured gelada raced toward his mates, his left hand held up awkwardly, a look of what Hunter called "sheer terror" on his face.
"He's trying to round up his females. But they hate that. It'll only make things worse," Hunter said, groaning. "Oh, Pete...."
Hunter the objective biologist jotted his dispassionate field notes. But Hunter the fellow primate shook his head in dismay. As for Pete's harem, they barked at him briefly, then resumed their grazing. Snap, snap, snap. With quick little moves they broke off the fresh grass blades and pushed them in their mouths. Punier and scruffier than their big-chested, fancy-maned male, the females nevertheless held the reins of power, and it would be entirely their decision whether Pete stayed or was toppled. For in gelada society there is one underlying law that governs all behaviors: Girls Rule.

Theropithecus gelada, as a gelada is properly called, is the last species in a once great dynasty of grass-grazing primates. Some three million years ago several species, one as large as a gorilla, ranged throughout Africa and into India, but all except Ethiopia's gelada vanished as the African continent warmed and its grasslands shrank. Only in the cool heights of the mountain meadows of north-central Ethiopia did a Theropithecus-friendly habitat survive. Today between 100,000 and 200,000 geladas remain in the country. Although they are not endangered, geladas are considered threatened because of their fragmented habitat and because of Ethiopia's growing human population and expanding farmlands. Pastures and fields now encroach on prime gelada terrain—the 10,000-foot- (3,048-meter) high alpine meadows of the Simen Mountains, where Hunter and I had come several days prior to Pete's bad afternoon and where it's not uncommon to see geladas grazing alongside horses and cows or close to a farmer's barley field.
"The geladas truly are the last of their kind," Hunter told me. Built like a rugby player, the 29-year-old Hunter stomped uphill through a meadow dotted with pink and blue wildflowers. We were in Simen Mountains National Park, Hunter's base for studying the geladas since 1997. He knew every glade and cliff the primates favored.
"They're so different from other primates in their diet and social behaviors," he said, stopping to look out over the sharply carved peaks and bluffs characteristic of the Simen scenery. "Even their habitat surprises people."
Geladas are creatures of the mountaintops, unlike most other African primates, which live in forests or low-lying savannas. During the day geladas wander through the high meadows and open forests along the Simens' steepest cliffs. At night they drop over the rocky precipices to narrow ledges—the kind of vertical terrain where falcons and vultures perch—and sleep huddled together against the freezing wind and cold.
Despite their distinctive status and ways, geladas are relatively unknown. Hunter's is the first long-term field study of the species in more than 25 years: Earlier research projects in the Simens, which reported many of the geladas' unusual behaviors, ended in the mid-1970s when Ethiopia fell into a dark cycle of famine, war, and rebellions.

E-mail this page to a friend

Missed the Press
Can Pete continue to fight off the competition? Find out how the family male featured in the National Geographic article is faring in this update from the field.


VIDEO Join author Virginia Morell in a high-five salute to the matriarchal society of geladas.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer   WinMedia

Watch a bachelor gelada try to sidle up to females by showing a youngster a little TLC in this online video. 

RealPlayer   WinMedia

Sights & Sounds
Journey into the world of gelada monkeys, where fanged males put on a tough act but females call the shots.

From boisterous babies to chiding females, these geladas bring a bit of monkey business to your  desktop.

E-greet a friend with this image of a baby gelada riding its mother jockey-style.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Contrary to many Westerners' assumptions that Ethiopia is completely drought-ridden and famine-stricken, the country has, in fact, a large variety of wildlife—although many of the species are limited in numbers—due to its unique geography. Ethiopia's rugged, fertile highlands are isolated from each other by surrounding deserts and savannas, creating island-like areas in which an incredible number of endemic animals have evolved. In addition to the gelada, the endangered Walia ibex, the endangered Ethiopian wolf, and the mountain nyala all roam the highland plateaus. Fewer than 500 each of the Ethiopian wolf and the Walia ibex exist today, and there are estimated to be only 3,000 mountain nyala remaining. More than 20 species of endemic birds inhabit the country including the wattled ibis, thick-billed raven, and blue-winged goose. These are but a few of the animals to be found in Ethiopia.

—Alice J. Dunn

Did You Know?

Related Links
BBC Nature Wildfacts
Find fast facts about and see more photos of geladas.

Primate Info Net Factsheet
Learn more about the ecology and behavior of this fascinating primate, and link to fact sheets about other primates.


Dunbar, R. I. M. "The Gelada Baboon: Status and Conservation." Primate Conservation, His Serene Highness Prince Rainier III of Monaco and Geoffrey H. Bourne, eds. Academic Press, 1977.

Fedigan, Linda Marie. Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds. Eden Press, 1982.

Hunter, Chadden. "Braveheart on the Edge," BBC Wildlife (September 2000).

Jablonski, Nina G., ed. Theropithecus: The Rise and Fall of a Primate Genus. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Napier, J. R., and P. H. Napier. The Natural History of the Primates. British Museum, 1985.

Nievergelt, Bernhard, and others, eds. "A Survey on the Flora and Fauna of the Simen Mountains National Park, Ethiopia." Walia (1998).

Smuts, Barbara B., and others, eds. Primate Societies. University of Chicago Press, 1986.


NGS Resources
Robert, Leo B. "Traveling in the Highlands of Ethiopia," National Geographic (September 1935), 296-328.

Osgood, Wilfred. "Nature and Man in Ethiopia," National Geographic (August 1928) 121-176.


© 2002 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe