Upon setting out to sea some 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus wrote, “Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.” Until that historic time, the world was thought by many to only consist of the western hemisphere. After Columbus and other explorers proved there wasn’t actually a deadly abyss lurking at the edge of the map, scientists and historians eagerly began documenting all the new information the explorers brought back. The “New World” became the designated term for North and South America, with the continents of Asia, Europe, Australia, and Africa remaining coined the “Old World.” And believe it or not, all these years later, it is not uncommon for textbooks to still refer to Old World monkeys and New World monkeys.
Africa is populated by Old World monkeys of the cercopithecoid type. And by the way, that term is pronounced SIR-KO-PITH-UH-KOID, a word used to describe monkeys with downward-turned noses, specialized teeth and arms, and a very cool feature—the cheek pouch! And what good is a cheek pouch, you might ask? Well, it can expand almost to the size of the stomach, maximizing the amount of food one can stuff into the body at a given time. Perfect for monkeys on the go! In addition to convenient storage pouches, African monkeys possess long noses, long thumbs with short fingers, and arms and legs that are about the same length as each other.
There are quite a few types of cercopithecoid monkeys, one of the most familiar being the baboons. These long-nosed primates are generally found scampering around on the ground in the dry, flat savannahs of Africa feeding on such food as fruit, grass seeds, roots, leaves, insects, and even small mammals and bird eggs. Making tasty snacks for larger hunters themselves, baboons prefer to climb to the top of tall trees or rocky cliffs in the evening for protection from larger-bodied nocturnal hunters (lions, leopards, and cheetahs, oh my!). Savannah baboons (Papio sp.) have been extensively studied, and we know that baboon troops can grow quite large with hundreds of individuals, many of whom are involved in complex social relationships with each other.
Pictured here is the gelada (Theropithecus gelada), a large baboon species sometimes referred to as the “bleeding heart baboon,” for the red heart (male) or hourglass-shaped (female) patch of skin on its chest.
Wearing your heart on your chest is actually a useful signal when you’re a gelada since changes in the skin coloration can relay cues about when you’re digging the opposite sex or when you just want to be left alone.
(Image by Kolumbusjogger)
Similar in many ways to baboons are the mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) and drills (Mandrillus leucophaeus). What? You say you’ve never heard of a mandrill…are you sure? Featured in the 1994 Disney hit The Lion King, the mandrill Rafiki serves as a sort of spiritual guide on the Pride Lands and was responsible for holding baby Simba up to the sky in a riveting representation of the Circle of Life. Now you remember, right?!? Characterized by their bright blue faces, red noses, and colorful nether regions, the mandrill is actually quite stunning to behold. Drills are similar in most ways to mandrills, though drills do not possess the bright blue hues on the face.
Both of these species are genetically related to a type of mangabeys, tree-dwelling cercopithecoid monkeys with long appendages that can be found throughout western and central Africa. Many mangabeys sport a somewhat eclectic look, some with wild punk-rocker style hair and some with a more slicked back ‘do and eyes masterfully highlighted by white markings. (Seen to the right is a Collared, or Red-capped Mangabey (Cercocebus torquatus)
Another grouping of African monkey, and in fact the most common monkey in Africa, is the guenon. Guenons are a highly variable assembly with at least 19 species included in the genus (Cercocebus): the blue monkey, moustached monkey, DeBrazza’s monkey, and the spot-nosed monkey. Found in sub-Saharan Africa, guenons tend to be smaller in size than most other ground-dwelling African primates and are often found living in mixed-groups with other types of primates. The preferred gastronomic pleasures for guenons include delectable fruits, crunchy insects, and colorful fibrous leaves that add a little pizzazz to the palate.
One species of highly terrestrial primates, the patas monkey (Erythrocebus patas) has taken moving on the ground to the extreme. Dwelling in the flat grasslands of middle Africa, patas monkeys generally travel from place to place on all fours, their extra long limbs and reduced toes serving as adaptations for running. And run, patas, run! The patas monkey, with an average running speed around 30 mph, can outrun most predators and even record-holding Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who’s top speed is about 27 mph. Note the long arms and legs in the image to the left.)
There are several other cercopithecines in Africa, including Talapoin monkeys (smallest Old World monkey at about 2.5 lbs), Swamp monkeys (fruit eaters that live in swampy areas), and Vervet monkeys (widespread, also called green monkeys) which range throughout the regions south of the Saharan desert.
Finally, in regard to African monkeys, there are three groups of colobines (Colobus sp.) living in the forest trees and taking on the role of the large-bodied leaf-eaters in their habitats. Though most colobines live in Asia (see the Asian primate section for more), the black-and-white colobus, the olive colobus, and the red colobus all call the African continent their home. Unlike the cercopithecines, African colobus monkeys generally have sharp teeth, complex stomachs, and tiny thumbs. The colobus monkeys tend to have long fur, one species of which sports an amazing dichromatic dream coat that would have made even Coco Chanel jealous: that would be the black-and-white colobus (Colobus guereza), whose long shiny black fur contrasts extraordinarily well with stark white accents along the shoulder and face. Just as eye-catching are baby black-and-whites, who are in fact all white! These babies are well-cared for since nothing says “Pay attention to me, everyone” like being the complete opposite of everyone else in the crowd.