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Adult howler monkeys ‘use play to keep the peace’

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Adult howler monkeys use play to avoid conflict and reduce group tension, with play levels rising when faced with scarce resources, a study suggests.

The researchers observed that adult monkeys spent more time playing with each other than with children, and adult females spent more time playing than adult males.

The game consists of monkeys hanging by their tails and making facial expressions and signs, such as shaking their heads.

It is an expensive activity for howler monkeys in terms of energy, as they generally lead an inactive lifestyle due to their mainly leaf-based diet.

The research team recorded that play between adults increases with time spent foraging for fruit, and they believe this is to keep the peace.

Howler monkeys usually eat leaves, and fruit is a very expensive resource that creates competition between the monkeys.

The study, carried out by a team of researchers from Spain, Brazil and the United Kingdom, focuses on the activity of two subspecies of howler monkeys – the Mexican howler and the golden-mantled howler – in the tropical forests of Mexico and Costa Rica.

They looked at seven different groups.

Howler monkeys do not have a fixed social hierarchy within their groups to navigate competition and conflict, and do not engage in collective grooming, which some primates use for group cohesion and tension reduction.

Co-author Dr Jacob Dunn, Associate Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said: “Despite its appearance and our own perception of what it means to play, play is not always associated with frivolity. or education.

“Instead, we think it plays an important role in howler monkey society by reducing tension when there is competition for scarce resources.

“We found that play levels are higher when howler monkeys feed on fruit, which is a valuable and defensible resource, and adult females play more than males.

“This is surprising, as females would be more vulnerable to competition for food than males.

“Howler monkeys are a particularly energy-conserving species, and we would have assumed that females would play less, as they are also limited by the energy requirements of reproduction.”

Lead author Dr Norberto Asensio, from the University of the Basque Country in Spain, said: “One theory about the positive effect of fruit consumption on game is that a fruit-based diet simply provides howler monkeys with more energy. compared to their typical diet.

“However, if this were the case, we should have observed that adults played more with all group members during fruit foraging, rather than just with other adults.

“Because juveniles do not pose a threat or provide competition in fruit trees, we believe that adults play with each other as a mechanism to resolve conflict within the group, similar to how other primate species do.”

– The study is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

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