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Kings of the Hill
By Virginia Morell
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-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.
"No one even knew how many geladas were left," Hunter said as he surveyed a nearby group of the primates. From a distance, with their golden brown tresses backlit by the afternoon sun, they looked like small haystacks, albeit moving ones, as they shuffled across the lawn picking handfuls of grass. Occasionally they glanced our way and barked or flicked their eyelids to remind us to keep our distance, but they'd grown used to Hunter's presence over the years and were not unduly alarmed. Hunter knew many of them by sight and had named certain individuals, like Pete. But he noted that even longtime observers had trouble telling geladas apart. Their dark facial skin, upturned noses, and deep-set eyes vary little from one to another, and he had resorted to using injuries or scars as markers and binoculars to get a closer view of their features.
"Among primatologists," Hunter continued, "geladas were always talked about as almost mythical animals. There was a mystique about them simply because they hadn't been seen for so long and because of their female-centric social organization." Like their closest relatives, the Papio baboons, geladas live in societies with such tight female bonds that the males often seem little more than party crashers at an invitation-only social event.
The gelada sisterhood is organized around family units of between two and eight related females, their offspring, and a primary male like Pete, which researchers call the family male. While other subordinate males are often attached to this basic unit, only the family male mates with the females. And none of these males—family male included—have any say in what the family does from day to day. Instead, like a Taliban leader's worst nightmare, the females decide everything: how long and where to graze, when to move, where to sleep. They also choose the family male and are not shy about demanding what they want from him, whether it is grooming, fighting on their behalf, or sex.
And that was why Pete was in trouble. A one-handed male would have great difficulty pleasing his consorts while keeping younger bachelor males at bay. The bachelors, "young toughs about five to eight years old," as Hunter characterized them, live in separate groups, although they spend most of their time close to the families, spying on them and looking for opportunities to oust the family males. Until a bachelor succeeds in replacing a male like Pete, he will never mate with any of the females. And if a family male loses his family, as Pete seemed about to do, he also loses all mating rights. "The only males that get sex in this society are the family males," Hunter reiterated. "There aren't any secret matings. It all happens right out in the open."
Hunter had spotted Pete's position-threatening injury on our first afternoon among the geladas. Several months had passed since Hunter had last been with them, but by moving slowly and making some mumbling, gelada-like contentment sounds—mmpf, mmpf, ummm—he finessed our way right into the center of gelada activity. All around us the animals sat hunched slightly forward, plucking grass and herbs. Geladas are extremely vocal, with a repertoire of over 30 different sounds. The air was full of their calls, some muted and soft when they were grazing peacefully, others sharp and angry when one family strayed into another's feeding area. Every so often an anxious female called out aaangh—human!—if she grazed too close to us, or gave a quick ang—dog—if she spotted a farmer's cur. But mostly there was the sound of 800 hands snapping off the slender blades of grass, a sound not unlike the steady tap of a gentle rain against a windowpane.
Hunter, who had been surveying the geladas, looking for those he knew best, suddenly bore in on a male that sat only ten feet (3 meters) from us. "I think that's Pete," Hunter said. "I named him after a wonderful, wild-haired professor of mine, so I have a soft spot for him. But what's happened to his hand?"
Hunter lifted his binoculars to study the male's face. Pete had unusually deep and wide wrinkles on his face as well as a scar shaped like an X beside his nose, and one of his female partners, Monica, had a deformed upper left arm caused by parasitic worms. Hunter always looked for Monica after sighting Pete just to make sure he had the right family. "Well, Monica's there, and that one with the kinked tail is another one of his wives, Sandy. And he has Cathy and Jenny with him too."
Monica was Pete's grooming partner. In some primate societies that relationship might put her at the top of the totem pole, but not among geladas. "It simply means she doesn't have any close females in the group to groom with," Hunter said. "Maybe she's only had sons and no daughters, so she doesn't have any strong female allies and is stuck with Pete.Cathy, the alpha, would never lower herself to that." Indeed, Hunter explained, Cathy barely paid any attention to Pete, "except when keeping him in line and when she's ovulating."
Cathy might ignore Pete, but on this sunny morning she was grazing beside him; he had not yet lost her support. "He still has his family, but he's going to have a tough go of it," Hunter predicted. "It looks as if he's broken his hand."
Aside from his injured hand, Pete was everything a family male should be: A wedge of long, brushy whiskers sprouted from each cheek, his mane was a silky mass of gold, and on his chest he bore the ruling male's distinctive mark—a bright red patch of flesh that flashed in the light like a large medal. The chests of every gelada, young and old, male and female, had a similar curvaceous area of bare skin, although instead of being red, most were a pale shell pink. Hormones dictate the color of the patches, with females in estrus and family males bearing the reddest ones. Youngsters, nursing and cycling females, and bachelors have the paler pink shade. But a bachelor's pale patch turns warrior red within 24 hours of being invited by the females to take over a family, while the old male's recedes to pearly pink.
So distinctive are the colored patches that geladas have been dubbed "bleeding heart" monkeys, and local Ethiopians like to tell a fanciful tale about God branding the first gelada on its chest for misbehaving. In fact, the patches are more like billboards than signs of grace or sin, and they signal the latest news about each gelada's sexual state.
"In most other primates that kind of information is shown with swellings around the buttocks," said Hunter. "But because the geladas sit down most of the day to feed, they can't use their bottoms for their sexual displays. They've evolved these rosy chest patches instead."
Even to our human eyes the patches proved very effective signposts. Although the geladas were spread out around us over an area of about two football fields, we had no difficulty picking out the females in estrus, the prime family males, and older deposed males—a quick glance at their chests told us all.
"It really is amazing how the ousted family males lose their red chest color; it just vanishes overnight, as do their mating rights," said Hunter. But despite their drop in color and sexual status, the toppled males don't leave their families. Rather, they stay on in a kind of grandfather role, Hunter explained. "That way they can protect their children, and they're very aggressive about that." Hunter had seen old males face jackals stalking their families. "The new young guy won't do that. He has to think about producing his own offspring." At the same time a new head of the family does not harm the babies of the preceding male—unlike some species, such as lions and gorillas, in which a new male may kill the youngsters in order to bring the females into estrus. In geladas nothing angers the females more than males barking at or striking one of their children. "That is the surest way to get ousted," Hunter said. "It's the gelada equivalent of driving a car into a school bus."
More typically, males fall from grace for a host of smaller errors, primarily not giving their females enough attention. Sex in particular is a key female demand (females have a baby about every two years), and Hunter wondered if Pete was up to this task. "He can't use that hand to groom or feed, so he has to be weak," Hunter said, noting that geladas consume 100 to 150 grass blades a minute when grazing with both hands. "He's only getting half that amount, and it's a pretty poor diet in calories anyway."
We weren't the only ones assessing Pete's chances. Keen sighted and socially cunning, every gelada bachelor in the vicinity would soon spot an injury like Pete's and begin plotting. "Sooner or later someone's going to test him," Hunter said. And as if on cue, another male suddenly appeared, swaggering like a street tough past Pete's family. The bachelor had fluffed up his mane into a Rod Stewartlike coiffure, flicked his pink eyelids, and curled back his black upper lip to show off his long canines and pink gums. The younger male's pose did the trick, and instantly Pete raced toward him, barking and screaming, with every hair of his own mane lifted aloft. The two males tore across the meadow, then vanished into the forest of giant heath trees. All the other geladas stopped feeding to watch and add their own cries and shouts to the dispute, and a passel of adolescent males ran to the front, screaming like cheerleaders. "It's almost like they're egging them on, like a bunch of kids at a schoolyard shouting 'Fight! Fight!'" Hunter said.
A moment later Pete reappeared. He loped across the meadow, tossing his mane triumphantly, and ran back into the center of his family to sit beside Monica. Pete had successfully chased off the intruder and now wanted "some approval for what he did," Hunter said. "He might expect to be groomed for having shown up that young hotshot." But Monica turned her back on Pete, and none of his other consorts offered any grooming praise either.
"Well," said Hunter, exhaling softly. "This isn't anything new, I don't think. Whoever that young bachelor is, he's been here before, and he smells blood. He's got something on the boil."
Minutes later the bachelor was back, once again testing Pete's strength and the allegiance of his family. And again Pete chased him away. But for the next hour the bachelor returned every few minutes to prance and parade, tempting the females and taunting Pete. The two males bared their canines, growled and barked at each other, and raced into the forest several times, yelping and screaming, but neither seemed to inflict any physical damage on the other. "They can scratch each other badly with their fingernails," said Hunter, "and you'll sometimes see males bleeding after one of these fights, but most of the competition seems to be in the chase, in getting the females to look at you and applaud."
Only when the afternoon turned to dusk did Pete get a reprieve. Monica was one of the first geladas to retire for the night. She led the way to an escarpment as sheer as the Empire State Building and nimbly dropped over the rocky cliffs to find a sleeping ledge. Pete was close on her heels.
Hunter and I followed them to the edge, watching as the geladas scrambled over the cliffs, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of their death-drop haunts. Besides, there was safety here: Leopards and hyenas couldn't attack them on such vertical terrain, and for now at least, bachelors wouldn't pursue them either. Geladas seldom challenge each other on the cliffs at night, and Pete could look forward to a peaceful night.
"First down to the ledges tonight. I bet he's the last one up tomorrow," Hunter said. "And who knows? Maybe it's Monica's strategy to save Pete."
It's hard to say what exactly pushes the females to drop their family male," Hunter said the next morning. We had hiked back to the cliffs where we'd last seen Monica and Pete and were waiting for them to reappear. As Hunter had anticipated, they were not among the early risers. Below us, geladas jumped over the cliffs like rock-climbing jocks, some making a beeline for the upper meadows where we were seated, others sitting and warming themselves on a sunny boulder as several youngsters leaped about in the branches of a heath tree. "Usually it's because the male isn't as attentive as the females want him to be. That's especially true in families where there are six or seven females; it's a lot of work to keep them all happy." Quarrels typically erupt among the females, too, when a takeover is under way. Some, like the lower ranked Monica, may want to keep the old male, while others may be ready for a new fellow. Once the decision is made, the females simply rise en masse and sit beside their chosen mate.
Whether or not that would be Pete's fate remained to be seen. Takeover battles could last days or weeks, and even when a family male's demise seemed inevitable, Hunter found it impossible to predict the outcome.
"It looks to me as if Pete could be tossed out, maybe even today," Hunter mused. "But I don't fully understand that young bachelor we saw yesterday. Why was he by himself? Usually a young guy needs his buddies backing him up to succeed. Where were they?"
Hunter kept track of two key groups of bachelors. He called them the Jets and the Sharks after the rival gangs in West Side Story. We didn't see either group until later that morning, but when the Jets arrived, Hunter's appellation made immediate sense. There were six bachelors in the Jets, ranging in age from five to eight years, and they were as cocky, boisterous, and proud as their namesakes. They paraded past the feeding geladas, then took up a position on the high ground among some rocks and rose bushes and studied the families below.
Though they live in small family units, geladas prefer the strength of numbers. Nearly 600 animals were now gathered in the meadow before us. The green carved spires of the Simens rose above the glade. A small forest of heath trees edged the meadow, and yellow-flowered Saint-John's-wort trees cast pools of shade over the lawn.
Mornings and late afternoons are the prime times for gelada social activities—for mating, arguing, and flirting. Pete and Monica had yet to appear (Hunter speculated that they had sneaked around the cliffs, trying to avoid the Jets), but the bachelors were already busy testing the dominant males in other families, looking for points of weakness. Three bachelors moved down the slope, casually feeding but keeping their eyes on two females that had come closer to them.
"Look at that. The hussies!" Hunter teased. "They are absolutely flirting."
None of the family males looked directly at the bachelors but instead shot them little side-glances now and then. "Everyone knows what everyone else is doing," Hunter said. "They all know this game."
A few moments later the game erupted when the bachelors inched closer to the two females. The family male came barreling up to their position and raced past them, his mane dancing in the wind. All six Jets joined together in a line and followed him across the meadow, barking at him until he leaped into a flowering tree. The bachelors then sat below him silently while he made a loud "I'm king of the mountain" yelp. He broke off a branch, waved it in the air, then trotted back to his wayward females. Unlike Pete's consorts, this fellow's wives gave him a quick grooming.
"It's a very ritualized display," Hunter said. "Leading the chase is a way for the family male to show he's still the top dog and for the bachelors and his wives to assess his fitness." Only when the bachelors saw some sign of weakness would they begin to focus on an individual family male, as had happened with Pete.
There was, however, another route for bachelors to take to the top. They could become follower males, as Hunter terms them. "It's the sneaky sniveler's way," said Hunter, who was not the least bit sympathetic to this strategy.
It was easy to spot the followers. They usually sat on a family unit's periphery, well away from the family male and close to a young friend, generally a two-year-old youngster in the family. Followers make friends with such youngsters by grooming them. Once a bachelor has successfully ingratiated himself, it is impossible for the family male to get rid of him since the follower generally has his young friend close at hand. "All he has to do is hold up the kid," Hunter said. "No family male would dare hit him then. He'd be ousted on the spot." Over time the follower works to lure away the females' loyalty by always siding with them or the youngsters in any family dispute. "It's cowardly, but it works," Hunter said. "They inevitably become the family male for awhile."
No male lasts more than four years in the top slot, and many lose their title before three. In that sense Pete was already close to the end of his reign.
Over the next few days we kept as close to Pete and Monica as we could, expecting any minute that the young, brassy-haired male of the first night would reappear to claim his title. That never happened. Instead, one morning Pete appeared early on top of the cliffs—walking on all fours, as a gelada normally does. Monica led him to the meadow, and Pete kept close beside her, shoulder to shoulder, in a proud strut.
"I can't believe this is going to have a happy Hollywood ending," Hunter said, laughing. "How did he manage to recover? Has Monica been protecting him?"
They were the kind of teaser questions that melodramas—and long, involved primate sagas—end with.
But like any soap opera, the answers would only come to those who waited and watched, and I was leaving camp the next day. A month went by, and at last I received an e-mail from Hunter: "Pete's hand healed completely! He's with Monica and his family, but things are still a bit shaky. He's not out of the woods yet as far as Cathy is concerned, and she's been flirting with one of the Jets." In other words, all was as it should be in geladaland.