In November of 2011, 25-year-old conservation biology master’s student Jonathan Cope travelled to Shaanxi province to study the vocalisations of golden snub-nosed monkeys, a field untouched by English-language researchers for four decades. He talks to Andrea O’Neil.Photos by Jonathan Cope.
Visiting China for the first time usually involves some rough patches. Even so, Jonathan Cope’s first patch was rougher than most.
Cope’s fieldwork started badly when his luggage was lost for three days en route to the city of Xi’an. Then, on his first day in monkey territory in the Qinling Mountains, he slipped.
“When it happened we were trying to get down from the mountain, a thunderstorm was brewing, and the rocks were extremely slippery in the wind,” he says.
He had broken an ankle and would spend two months recovering. “I was laid up in a bed in the mountains, looked after by a local doctor who gave me herbal medicine.”
The accident was a setback. Cope managed a couple of days’ recording in the mountains after his recuperation, before moving on to an eco-tourism region in southern Shaanxi and then on to a zoo to study the monkeys in captivity.
Cope’s research project came about by chance. It was while volunteering with Massey students on a Ponui Island kiwi conservation project that Cope, then a University of Auckland undergraduate, met his future supervisor, Chinese-born Weihong Ji.
Working in conjunction with Chinese researchers, Ji had been studying golden snub-nosed monkeys for many years, and she and Cope hit it off.
So when Ji obtained funding from the Shaanxi Sciences and Technology Foundation to bring in postgraduate students to work on these monkeys, she recruited Cope to work on their vocalisations.
Male contact call
Juvenile attention call
Juvenile protest call
Female stress call
Female contact call
He had scored a more exotic location for his fieldwork than any of his fellow Master’s students. “I’m very lucky.”
Golden snub-nosed monkeys are found only in a small area in the temperate, mountainous forests of central and southwest China, and the species is considered a national treasure.
But the felling of their native forests for firewood and building timber has put them on the endangered list.
“They’ve got the same status as panda,” Cope says. “They’re threatened by hunting, by habitat loss and by permanent barriers like roads and towns that prevent genetic migration through the larger population and cause inbreeding.”
Cope hopes to discover whether monkeys that have been held captive in zoo breeding programmes or have been in regular contact with humans through eco-tourism exhibit anomalous language patterns. If so, this could have implications for their reintegration with wild populations.
“If you’re supplementing the population with individuals that have lost key charismatic sounds that only their population would have used, you’re losing cultural and behavioural diversity,” he says. “It could mean that languages or behaviours are lost. They’re just not passed on any more.”
Until he began work with Ji, Cope had never studied animal vocalisations or heard of golden snub-nosed monkeys.
“The only prior experience I can claim is trying to mimic monkey noises when I was a kid growing up in South Africa,” he says.
Most of the animal vocalisation research literature features birds, says Cope, but primate vocalisations have been a topic of interest for anthropocentric reasons.
“[People have] been interested in primate vocalisations for many, many years because of trying to understand the origins of our language.”
The only existing English-language research on snub-nosed monkey vocalisations dates back to the 1970s and was carried out in United States zoos.
Cope’s fieldwork involved hundreds of hours painstakingly making audio recordings of monkey vocalisations and noting down the corresponding behaviours.
Back in New Zealand, he is finding distinct calls emerging from the data: contact calls, which allow a group of monkeys to keep tabs on each other’s whereabouts when foraging or on the move; alarm and warning calls; questioning calls; and stress calls.
Cope has discovered a call unrecorded in the literature, made when the monkeys embrace one another. Cuddling is a trait unique to golden snub-nosed monkeys – they hug not just for warmth, but to soothe and socialise. “They embrace each other a lot, it’s the major part of their social dynamic, more so than in any other species,” Cope says. “Other species won’t embrace and welcome each other, or reaffirm social bonds. These guys do it to end fights and it’s as important as grooming would be for other primates.” When the monkeys hug they let out a series of high-pitched squeaks, the equivalent of a human’s “mmm” snuggling sound, he says.
In the face of such adorable animals, what could Cope do but fall in love? “They are the calmest, most gentle, beautiful monkeys in the world. They really are probably the most gentle of the primates. They’re really, really, really lovely.”
Cope was almost accepted as a member of the troupes he studied, he says, becoming especially close with a male he called Nose-less. “We would sun ourselves on this big rock because it was approaching winter, and we would just lie there next to each other. He was my friend, I liked him.”
Another significant monkey call that Cope recorded is a wistful sigh given by male monkeys. In the wild, such sighs are like a quieter contact call – the call made by a male to reassure nearby females of his presence, Cope says. But males in the zoo gave the sigh constantly, despite a lack of female companions. “The captive population that I studied seemed to have gone a bit further with their sigh. They give what we now call a ‘quiet sigh’. It’s almost inaudible and they give it pretty much constantly. It may be to do with lack of stimulation,” Cope says.
Similarly, in the eco-tourism region he found that the effects of human contact were showing up in his recordings. “In the eco-tourism region, the population exhibits a significantly higher rate of alarm calls and stress calls.”
Supported by a local fund and working alongside a local expert, one of Ji’s doctoral students, Brigitte Kreigenhofer, is working with the tourism operators to ameliorate the causes of stress.
“If the tourism operators understand how to improve the welfare of the monkeys, it will be good for everyone. The monkeys will be happier, and the operators will be able to run more successful businesses,” says Cope.
Cope finishes his research next autumn, and while he has yet to draw definitive conclusions from his data, he is already discovering things that are new to the English-language literature.
“In the research I read, they were in captivity and it was only done over a very short period, like a matter of hours,” he says. “So the stuff I’ve got is very different from what they found.”
With his degree coming to a close in a few months, Cope faces some hard choices. He could continue on to a doctorate, but Cope would like to try his hand at natural history film making.
Whatever he does, he firmly intends to revisit the golden snub-nosed monkeys of Shaanxi. “I miss them,” he says. “I would give anything to be there right now.”