No monkeys… The abundant wildlife in the Northwoods does not include primates
BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
I enjoy writing about our native and introduced wildlife species. No matter how familiar I might be with an animal, I still learn something new. Sometimes it is difficult to decide which of our many animals to write about. This week I decided to head in a direction you may never have predicted, though, and write about monkeys.
Why does Wisconsin have no monkeys? Or for that matter, why are there no monkeys in North America? We don’t even have chimpanzees, apes, and no primates at all, unless you want to count humans. Like Australia and Antarctica, we are a primate-free continent. Australia has the duck-billed platypus, though, and cool marsupials like kangaroos and koala bears. Antarctica has two to seven species of penguins, depending on which expert’s opinion you agree with. Our only marsupial is the lowly opossum, and not one of the world’s 17 penguin species call our continent home. That, however, is a topic for a future article.
“The explanation for why we have no monkeys is apparently because they never figured out how to build boats.” -The Masked Biologist
When you think of where monkeys live, you might picture a jungle or rain forest, and understandably so. We are high enough above the equator that we lack those kinds of habitats. I would offer that there are many kinds of monkeys that could readily adapt to our temperate North American climate. For example, baboons live in the African savannah; they might be able to live in the plains and grasslands of Oklahoma or northern Texas. They are opportunistic omnivores, eating insects, seeds, and small animals. Another example is the hearty Japanese macaque, or snow monkey. They are the planet’s northernmost living non-human primate, occupying subarctic forests and deciduous mountain forests. Perhaps there are parts of the Sierra Nevada, Cascade, or Rocky mountain ranges. Finally, there are a group of monkeys known as New World Monkeys that live in South America or southern Central America. These are the cute little flat-nosed monkeys like tamarins, capuchins, and wooly, spider, howler and squirrel monkeys. They use a variety of warm forested habitats, but some of these would likely adapt well to the Florida Everglades and the swamps in southeastern states along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. There are probably other good examples, but you get the idea.
The explanation for why we have no monkeys is apparently because they never figured out how to build boats. Primates were supposed to have originated in Africa. They dispersed slowly, on foot, as their populations expanded. As the continents broke off into smaller chunks, monkeys were unable to travel very far across the ocean. The land bridge that connected Russia and Alaska was too cold and forbidding for that kind of travel. My research indicates that some monkeys travelled on rafts of vegetation to new areas. They did not build these rafts themselves, although I wish that were true. Rather, the monkeys were more likely unwilling passengers on large rafts of tangled trees and other plants washed out to sea after large storms like hurricanes or typhoons. The survivors hung on for dear life until the rafts washed ashore and they were able to start their own populations. The currents on the North American coasts are not conducive to monkey transport.
If we did have primates on our continent, it does not seem likely we would have any in Wisconsin. Our winters are very cold, very long, and very snowy. Too much so for even the heartiest of monkeys. Sadly, we just don’t have ideal monkey habitat. If we did have a primate, it would have to be a big one, perhaps a gorilla relative, in a classic application of my favorite ecogeographic principle, Bergmann’s Rule. The concept is simple; the further north a subspecies of animal lives, the larger its body must be, and the southern subspecies are consequently smaller. This is part of why there are those who believe in bigfoot, or sasquatch—but that, too, is a topic for another time.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work in natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to gain experience with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.