A Wanderoo? Tucson has two!
Tucked in between the Pollinator Garden and the Conservation Learning Center at the Reid Park Zoo are two very popular and fascinating Wanderoos – but you’d better look up if you want to see them. Though they may be splashing around in their pond or dashing behind trees and bushes, it’s more likely they’ll be curiously looking down at you from a great height when they’re not leaping and swinging around up there. Their humanlike hands have opposable thumbs and black fingernails (so stylish at present!) and you may see them sitting on a branch to expertly inspect and daintily munch on their tasty treats, which are often hidden throughout their habitat. The Wanderoos are better known in this part of the world as Lion-Tailed Macaques.
These clever primates have lovely manes, like lions, but they get their name from the tufts on the ends of their tails. Their fur is silky, long, and black, so the white manes provide a dramatic contrast. There are several types of macaques, and the Lion-Tailed variety is among the smallest. Males can weigh up to 33 pounds and their bodies are up to 24 inches long, plus another 9-15 inches of tufted tail, and the females are considerably smaller, about half that size. Though they have formidable canine teeth in front, these are used mostly to scare off competing males rather than for hunting. Fruits just need to be located, not subdued. Their favorite fruits are relatives of the fig.
Lion-Tailed Macaques prefer to live in the upper tree canopies of tropical and monsoon forests, and love to eat Durian and Jackfruit, which at one time was widely available up in the trees. In a pinch, they will eat insects, snails, bird eggs, tree frogs, lizards, and so on. They are native to the Western Ghats, a mountain range in India, a place of wonderful biodiversity, at least for now. And Lion-Tailed Macaques are crucially important to that diversity, because they tend to disperse the seeds of all that fruit they eat, either pre- or post-digestion (we’ll leave the details of that to your imagination).
Lion-Tailed Macaques spend their days foraging and traveling to find food – often leaping impressively between the treetops. In between their meals and daily naps, females and juveniles socialize with the other members of their troop, playing together and grooming each other. Males rarely join in though; a troop includes 10-20 individuals with one clearly dominant male, and he is responsible for protecting the entire group. Females can start bearing young at age 5, but even if everything goes well, they only produce one offspring about every 2 ½ years. Young females may stay with the troop indefinitely, but when young males hit puberty, it’s time for them to run off and join a bachelor troop.
Unfortunately, the treetops the Lion-Tailed Macaques inhabit are disappearing at an alarming rate, due to deforestation, agriculture, and ever-expanding human habitation. Wanderoos are beginning to come down from those trees, which increases the potential for conflict with humans. These primates are particularly clever, resourceful, and have extremely dexterous hands. In their native habitat, they have figured out how to remove poisonous stingers by using thick leaves, how to use forest litter as a sort of sponge to soak up moisture from the holes in trees, and even to scoop water from a pool by using coconut shells!
But now their forest homes are fragmented. They can move to other types of forest, for instance dryer deciduous forests, but these will not provide adequate sustenance, so they climb down the trees, cross the highways at their peril, and figure out how to raid human settlements for food, even if it is meant for livestock. They’ve been known to enter homes on tea plantations, looking for and finding fresh food and even garbage to eat. Clearly, this is not a good situation for either the Macaques or the humans living in their midst, but the good news is that the Indian government is taking notice and beginning to protect the forest habitats of the Lion-Tailed Macaques – and more than 500 zoos internationally are now housing them as well, learning more about their reproductive needs in order to stabilize their populations.
Like their relatives the Siamang Gibbons, who are coming to the Reid Park Zoo expansion, Tucson’s own Wanderoos are not just here to delight the public – they’re here to live safely and enjoyably at the same time they’re helping with conservation of their kind in the wild. Come see them – but be sure to look up!