Geographic Distribution and Habitat
The Angolan talapoin (Miopithecus talapoin), also known as the southern talapoin, is a species of Old World monkeys endemic to southwestern Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Angola, south of the river Congo.
Talapoins are arboreal (tree-dwelling) monkeys who prefer to live in dense vegetation near the banks of rivers, swampy areas, or forests close to the water. However, due to easy availability of food, they can also be found near human habitations or cultivated areas close to the river.
Angolan talapoins are one of the two types of talapoin monkeys that inhabit Angola, the second being Gabon talapoin monkeys (Miopithecus ogouensis). Although the Angolan talapoin shares the same genus as the Gabon talapoin, there are notable differences with the Angolan members being larger in size and darker in color than their Gabon counterparts. Additionally, the geographic locations of these two species do not overlap. Recent genetic studies suggest that the two should be considered two separate species.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
Talapoins are one of the smallest African monkeys and the smallest species of Old World monkeys, weighing between 0.8 and 1.9 kg. The tail length ranges from 14 to 21 in (36–53 cm) and is longer than the body length, which ranges from 12.6 to 17.7 in (32–45 cm).
A male talapoin was recorded to live for 28 years in captivity. However, due to the inability to know his birth date, his exact age is hard to estimate. Average life expectancy in the wild is unknown, but it is likely to be lower than in captivity, as is the case with almost all animals raised in captivity.
The Angolan talapoin can be distinguished from the Gabon talapoin by the presence of a bare, black-skinned nose and bordering facial skin covered with small black hair, almost resembling Batman. Yellow and white hair frames the face. Another distinguishing feature is their large black ears—which differ from Gabon talapoins, who have dark but not black ears. Moving away from the face, the talapoins don a greenish-yellow outer coat speckled with gray and a white underbelly. Their arms and long legs are a paler shade of yellow with less gray coloration compared to their backs, whereas the tails are darker gray-black with yellowish-gray underneath. The males are generally more colorful than the females and sport a pale blue scrotum.
Talapoins are omnivores who are not picky in their food choices and consume a variety of foods that can include insects, seeds, fruit, water plants, grubs, eggs, and small vertebrates. Talapoins living near humans may also occasionally raid crops.
Behavior and Lifestyle
These shy, mostly arboreal monkeys primarily live in rainforests along rivers, with some groups situated close to human settlements. The main goal in their day is to find food. They make foraging trips to close-by areas but never wander too far from the river. Although arboreal, they make trips to the forest ground to forage. Daily activities peak in the morning and in the late afternoon, but they may take a mid-day break to rest and recover. Come nightfall, members of each group sleep at communal sites in the trees along the edge of the river. In case of a threat, they are able to dive and swim to safety.
Talapoins are the smallest Old World monkeys.
Even though talapoins live together in large groups, the males and females rarely interact outside of the breeding season.
Talapoins live close to the river and are able to swim.
Daily Life and Group Dynamics
Talapoins live in large multi-male/multi-female troops, numbering as many as 60–80 individuals in groups living away from human settlements and 100–120 individuals in groups living close to humans. These troops consist of sub-groups, which can either be composed of adult and large juvenile males (all-male sub-groups), adult females with infants, small and large juvenile females (female/infant sub-groups), or medium-sized juveniles with a single adult male (juvenile sub-groups). The number of adult females in a group outnumber the males. However, for most of the year, the adult males have limited interaction with the females. During the mating season, the group structures change, and the adult males move into the core of the group to interact and copulate with the females, and at the same time females join groups of adult males.
In captive populations, talapoins have been found to show numerous acts of endearment. Talapoins sit together in pairs for long periods with their tails entwined and huddle together in pairs or groups while sleeping. Additionally, existing members of a group nuzzle new members and females embrace each other, giving occasional hugs.
Research in captive talapoins has indicated that facial expressions, distinct postures, and body gestures portray the intentions and different moods of the individuals. For example, the reclining position serves as an invitation to be groomed by another talapoin, whereas sitting in a bowed posture with elbows close to the side may indicate preference to be left alone. Human-like expressions do not portray the same feelings. For example, yawning does not indicate tiredness but instead denotes tension or conflict. Similarly, an open mouth grin does not mean excitement but indicates an aggressive threat.
Through collective research in both captive and wild populations, talapoins have been found to communicate using 11 different types of vocalizations and 31 different sounds, giving human singers a run for their money. While to the human ear, their vocalizations may all sound bird-like, vocal noises emitted at different frequencies denote distinct functions. If an infant gets separated from his mother or lost, he will emit weak, rhythmic “coo” cries until they are reunited again.
To reduce the chances of getting lost in the forest while looking for food, and to coordinate activities, one member will emit a high pitched “mew” sound followed by other members responding with a lower pitched “uh” sound. Repetition of these sounds back and forth serves as a contact signal to locate a lost member.
In case a bird or squirrel appears close to the group, or the presence of a predator is felt, many members will participate in a chorus song of varying frequencies, which may intimidate the encroacher. Overall, males tend to vocalize less than females of the same age. This may be related to the lower social participation of the males in the group.
While research in captive talapoin groups provides a glimpse into the many different methods of communication, the extreme shyness, elusive nature, and small size of these talapoins make it difficult to study their natural behavior in the wild and limit our understanding of the dynamic, and complex nature of these primates.
Reproduction and Family
Females can conceive at the age of 4.5 years and males reach sexual maturity 1–2 years after the females. Prominent swelling of the pink colored skin around the female genitalia marks the readiness of the female to copulate. During the mating period, social reorganization occurs with males and females joining the opposite groups, one of the few times in a year that males and females interact. After copulation, males do not form relationships with females or prevent a female from mating with other males. Instead, after mating is complete, everyone goes their own separate way. In fact, in a single mating season, females may mate with several males in succession. The reproductive season is fairly short, with the female developing swellings and conceiving within 2 months. The pregnancy period typically lasts for about 5–5.5 months and most adult females give birth to a single baby every year.
While the infant is being raised, allomothering (when an adult female that is not the mother takes care of the infant) and allonursing (when a lactating mother feeds the infant of another mother and vice versa) have also been observed. This community childcare allows for the mother to go foraging for food without constantly being concerned about their infant.
Talapoins help disperse fruit seeds and control insect populations through their fruit and insect-rich diets which, in turn, support the propagation and safety of the local vegetation.
Conservation Status and Threats
Angolan talapoins are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2019), appearing on the Red List of Threatened Species. Previously, in 2008, they were listed as Least Concern by the IUCN; however, due to increased levels of habitat destruction near the Congo River, the species was reclassified.
Due to their small size and bird-like vocalizations, they are difficult to identify and were largely overlooked during earlier wildlife surveys. However, recent reports provide evidence that talapoins are now being hunted and captured for bushmeat in Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo and that they are far more threatened than originally thought. In fact, their population decline is so drastically significant that it is now rare to see the talapoins in the place they used to call home, Angola, which happens to be largest protected area endemic to them.
The Angolan talapoin is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between governments whose goal is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
While the global conservation status of talapoins is known, further studies are required to assess and determine their local population status within Angola and Congo. Despite being a Vulnerable species, numerous reports of talapoins being sold as bushmeat on roadsides indicates increased hunting for consumption. While Angola has a Ministry of Environment, there are no clear legislations or agreements towards protection of wild species. Therefore, establishment of a wildlife authority and specific local legislations aiming to protect wildlife are crucial. Additionally, enforcement of strict protection laws with respect to hunting and limiting bushmeat trade by the authorities is also required. Absence of local law enforcement and uncontrolled hunting will lead to population decline and potentially local extinction of the species.
Poverty and lack of a constant food supply increase the demand for bushmeat as a source of income and protein. While bushmeat consumption may temporarily alleviate hunger, it is not a sustainable option. As a result, solutions such as establishment of a domestic livestock supply for consumption may serve as an alternative to wild animals. Additionally, educating the local communities about the benefits of biodiversity and risks associated with bushmeat consumption—such as spread of disease or viruses—may also help decrease hunting and help preserve biodiversity.
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Written by Divya Pawar, April 2022