Rhesus Monkeys in Silver Springs, Florida

As seen on the FOX 35 Morning News

Study of the Silver River Monkeys

By Bob Gottschalk

Baby Rhesus Monkey

Contrary to local folklore, Tarzan didn’t leave monkeys in Florida.

In 1966, Anthony Slide, coordinator of the National Film Information System of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, stated that “The only Tarzan movie shot at Silver Springs, Florida was ‘Tarzan Finds a Son’, which was released in 1939.” In addition, there is no footage of rhesus monkeys in “Tarzan Finds a Son.” To put a final nail in the coffin of this myth, the first reference to the monkeys of Silver Springs was in the November 11, 1938, edition of Ocala Banner, months before the filming of Tarzan. Therefore, it seems impossible for the monkeys to have been left here after the filming of the movie was completed.

So where did the monkeys come from?

The most accepted explanation for the origin of the Silver Springs Rhesus Colony comes from an article in the Florida Scientist, Vol. 50 No. 4, August 18, 1987, edition titled History of the Free ranging Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca Mulatta) of Silver Springs, written by Linda D. Wolfe and Elizabeth H. Peters, Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and the Department of Anthropology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. Tish Hennessey, head of All Creatures Sanctuary and Friends of the Silver River Monkeys, Ocklawaha, Florida also contributed.

Rhesus Monkey

The generally accepted and accurate explanation for the origin of the Silver Springs Rhesus Colonies was provided by friends and employees of the late Colonel Tooey during a period between 1937 and 1939. Colonel Tooey had a “Jungle Cruise” tour boat ride made up of paddle boats owned by the Hart Boat Line. Thinking a live exhibit of monkeys would enhance the earnings of his business, he built an island on the river -- still referred to as “Monkey Island”-- and purchased two pairs of adult monkeys from a carnival in upstate New York, between Syracuse and Rochester. The carnival brought the monkeys down to Florida and released them on the island. Since Mr. Tooey was told that monkeys cannot or would not swim, he believed the monkeys would be isolated on the island. However, Rhesus Monkeys are excellent swimmers and wasted little time saying goodbye to Tooey’s island and hello to the banks of the Silver River. It was later reported that the monkeys weren’t breeding as well as Tooey had hoped, so he made a subsequent release of six more Rhesus monkeys purchased from a supply house in New York. They were released on the north side of the river sometime around 1948. There was a report of another small release in 1962.

Did you know that monkeys have a language of their own?

They communicate through a series of grunts, coos, screeches, facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language. I remember one occasion when I was relaxing in my canoe observing the monkeys, when I suddenly heard a rapid series of loud, mid-pitched grunts telling me that there must be danger. Every monkey was staring in the same direction, and when I looked, a large alligator was swimming up behind my kayak. During another occasion, a large dominant male monkey was shaking a tree. This is a warning to stay back for which I’m well aware, but sometimes when you’re kind of used to the monkeys, you tend to get complacent. Well, this guy was puffing himself up, and jumping from tree to tree trying to make himself look as big and heavy and fearsome as he could. To my surprise, and to his, he had pounced on a tree branch just above my head that didn’t support his weight very well. As the branch bowed down beneath his weight he was hanging there right in front of me. Luckily, I don’t startle easily or I would have been swimming with the gators as this guy, who was totally shocked by his maneuver, let out a screech and shot like a rocket to a safer location. Of course, from there, he resumed his threats with a series of hand slaps, head bobs, yawns, and grunts. By refusing to meet any eye to eye contact with this male, and allowing him more space, he eventually was able to calm down and go about his business.

Many people are concerned about the safety of people when feeding the monkeys.

Of course, most of us know that feeding habituates monkeys to people, and as they lose fear of people, they tend to get closer. This leads some individuals to think they are tame, but they are NOT! Anyone feeding monkeys by hand is taking a serious risk. Aside from the dangers to the human, indiscriminate feeding can be very dangerous to the monkeys as well. Older, but low-ranked monkeys in the social order are very likely to fight over the free treats, and baby monkeys can be caught in the middle. This can result in serious injury or even death for the small baby. Monkeys live in a very orderly society, and this social structure can be permanently damaged when people cause these unnecessary fights.

Macaques live in multi-male, multi-female societies.

In these societies, the females rule in what is called a matrilineal society. It starts with the dominant female having the highest rank moving on down to each of her sisters. Each of the dominant females babies ranks above the closest ranked sister and her babies, and this pattern passes down to each subsequently ranked sister and her offspring. The youngest of the dominant female’s babies has the highest rank on up to her oldest offspring. The males are always lower ranked, and by the time they are about four years of age, they are forced to leave the group, and they usually hook up with other males who have been ostracized from other groups. The male offspring of the dominant female do rank above the next highest ranked female of the group. One day I was spending time with what I call “A” group. The group had been overthrown by a new male and female, and the original dominant male, who was obviously much older had been allowed to come back into the troop. It is not unusual to find more than one adult male in a group as long as they are no threat to the dominant male. This old male was called King Louis, and for all his size and ferociousness, was being picked on and harassed by an infant. King Louis was doing a lot of tongue flicking and lip smacking, because he was extremely nervous. King Louis didn’t enjoy this harassment, but he knew that if he disciplined the young upstart, he could put himself at serious risk from the adult females and the dominant male.

What is the role of the dominant male?

Many people think that the main purpose of the male is to pass on his genes to the offspring of the group. While that obviously happens, it isn’t really necessary, as the females will find other males outside the group to breed with. The male’s main purpose is for protection, and this is a job for which they come well equipped. They have huge fangs and powerful, agile bodies.

Did you know your dog can talk to the monkeys?

To a certain extent, it’s true, and so can we. When we are angry, for example, we often furrow our brow, the corners of our mouth come forward, and our eyes dilate. With monkeys and dogs, the ears also go back. Dominant dogs and monkeys make themselves look larger and hold their tales high. When we smile, our mouths open and the corners go back. This is the same for monkeys and dogs when they are happy or playing. Our simian relatives and dogs can read this body language in us, as well as each other. So the next time you see a monkey, don’t forget to say hello.

What do the Silver River monkeys eat?

Approximately 85% of what the monkeys eat is vegetation, consisting of nuts, seeds, fruit, leaves, and roots etc. The balance of their diet is made up of dirt, insects, and they love spiders. Long-jawed orb-weaver spiders are common along the banks of the river, and the monkeys eat them like candy.

Are the monkeys dangerous?

Of course, all animals, humans included, are dangerous if sufficiently provoked. They definitely have the tools to deliver a nasty bite. However, if given the space and respect that wild animals deserve, there is no reason to expect that anyone would be bitten. One of the easiest ways to avoid bites is to never stare at a monkey. Staring at a monkey is interpreted as a threat. If the threat is returned, it can instantly be diffused by looking away. On one occasion, I came upon a group of monkeys recently taken over by a new dominant male and female. Since they were new, they hadn’t had time to get to know me like the leaders of the other groups on the river. My observation point was too close for the comfort of these new arrivals, and they began to make threats. Being used to subtle threats, I obviously pushed these monkeys too far, and the male eventually charged to within inches of me. By simply looking down and away, he stopped on a dime and backed off to a safer position. I knew that this negative encounter was caused by me, and I backed off to give them the space and respect they deserved. Another often talked about danger, and one of the greatest half-truths out there, is that Rhesus monkeys have the Herpes-B virus, and they will transmit it to humans if bitten or scratched. The truth is humans have had millions of interactions with these primates throughout the world, and there hasn’t been a single report of anyone receiving the virus from free ranging monkeys. There have been a limited number of cases from captive monkeys. The difference is that monkeys have to be stressed to transmit the virus. Only captive monkeys are stressed enough to weaken their immune systems enough to allow the virus to be shed. The monkeys are carriers of the virus, just like many humans who have had measles are carriers, and often later on in life, when stressed, the virus exhibits itself as shingles, or another example would be with the herpes simplex virus, which forms cold sores in the mouth. It often takes stress to make the virus virulent.

Rhesus Monkey and Baby

Should the monkeys be eliminated from the Silver River?

This is a question everyone has to answer for themselves. However, as most of you know, monkeys are not the only potentially hazardous animals present in the Florida parks. Among the other species likely to be present are alligators (hazard from bite attacks); raccoons (hazard from rabies); bats of several species (hazard from rabies); mosquitoes of several species (hazard of encephalitis); ticks (hazard of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease); fire ants (hazard from bites); and several species of poisonous snakes (hazard from bites). Most parks, of course, do not contain feral Rhesus monkeys; but any potential hazard from the monkeys should be viewed in the context of the hazards from the other animals. It seems likely that, of the species mentioned, the greatest hazard of morbidity and perhaps mortality is from the fire ants and arthropods, followed by the rabies hazard from raccoons and the hazard of snake bites.”

On the other hand, the monkeys are not indigenous to Florida, and as a general rule, we try not to introduce non-native species of plant and animal life into the ecosystem. However, this is not always a bad thing. We hear of non-native species being introduced all the time to control unwanted flora and fauna, and in some cases, we find that the cure turns out to be the new problem. I have studied the monkeys for four years, and they appear to be neutral to the environment, but after being here for 74 years, they have been incorporated wholly into the ecosystem. Since the monkeys will naturally not allow their population on the Silver River to exceed what the environment can support, it makes sense to manage the monkeys outside the Silver River and protect and preserve the heritage of the Silver River monkeys. These monkeys are the only free-ranging population of Rhesus monkeys in the United States. There is no place else where a colony like this can be seen as an intrinsic part of the ecosystem. This alone makes them valuable, let alone their economic worth from tourist revenue. They are a major part of the Silver Springs attraction, and many boaters come from all over the country to see the monkeys. They are also a great value to the, universities as they can be studied without the expense of traveling overseas, in many cases. For these reasons and others, it would seem prudent to protect and preserve the heritage of the Silver River monkeys.

How many do you think there are?

The population has remained pretty steady for at least the last four years with a slight decline to less than 100 monkeys on the Silver River. A recent report from one of the local news organizations of as many as 300 monkeys on the Silver River is grossly inflated.

What kind of monkeys are found on the Silver River?

The monkeys found on the Silver River are called Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta). Rhesus macaques, also called Rhesus monkeys, are native to South, Central, and Southeast Asia. They inhabit diverse habitats such as forests, grasslands, arid areas, and areas close to and often among human populations. A female may reach 20 lbs., and males may reach 40 lbs., but these would be very large macaques. Macaques are mostly herbivorous, but have been observed on one occasion eating Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis). Some insects and arthropods are also eaten. When they find a specialized food source, they often store their food in specialized cheek pouches.

How intelligent are Rhesus monkeys?

In psychological research, they have been shown to demonstrate self-awareness. This is only observed in primates of high intelligence. Using a mirror, the monkeys reportedly recognized themselves and examined various parts of their bodies. In some instances, they actually adjusted the mirror to get a better view.

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