Boy and Wild Monkeys Make Unlikely Friends
In a small village in southeast India, a toddler has reportedly "befriended" a troop of monkeys.
Video shows the boy at about a year old poking and prodding a group of gray langurs, a small species of old world monkey that has a large population in this region.
Following them around, the boy lightly tugs at their tails and gives the monkeys a chase. In turn, the monkeys leap around, chasing him back. Upon first impression, the exchange appears similar to rough housing among human children.
Local news outlets have been describing the interactions as a remarkable "friendship" between human and monkeys.
It's not the first time accounts have surfaced about people who share strong bonds with our wild cousins.
Last April, a girl was found naked and alone in the woods. Initial accounts falsely reported that she had been raised by a band of monkeys, but despite the widely publicized error, people speculated about the probability of such an interaction. A similar debate arose in 2016 after a young boy fell into the enclosure of a gorilla named Harambe.
In both instances, people wanted to believe it was possible for a primate to altruistically help a human in need. But does this compute with biology?
What the Experts Say
It's true that monkeys are distant biological relatives, but it's unlikely they see us as such, experts say.
"The reality is that these animals are very opportunistic," said Luisa Arnedo, a senior programs officer for the National Geographic Society, who earned her PhD studying primates.
Humans, like the young boy seen in the video, often approach monkeys in this region bearing food. Arnedo explained that these types of old world monkeys tend to be very social. They live in matriarchies of roughly 15 individuals, and their troops often have a large number of juveniles. It's common for individuals in the group to express empathy to one another.
"Friendships and collaborations are important for the group to survive," she said.
"In macaques it's not uncommon to adopt an infant," said Augustin Fuentes, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame. He's referring to one adult macaque adopting an unrelated infant macaque, but whether it's possible to see the same effect with a different species is unlikely.
"I'm going to go out on a limb and say yes, it's possible, but it's extremely rare," said Fuentes. Helping a stranger, he said, "is a distinctly human thing. This is something that separates humans from everything else."
Both Arnedo and Fuentes gave personal accounts of growing bonds with monkeys they studied in the field.
"If you spend enough time with them, it feels like you're part of a group," said Arnedo, but she added that, just like humans, primates are shaped by environmental factors and individual personalities. Primates that live in regions where poaching is common might be more hostile to human presence than those that are used to being fed.
Why a monkey might "befriend" a boy in India, both scientists agreed, was more likely related to the food he provided than anything else. His small size also may make him less intimidating than a fully grown human, though Fuentes acknowledged that some primates can usually pick up on human differences.
"We know monkeys can tell males from females, children from adults. We even think in some places they can tell nationality," he said, noting that people from different regions tend to exhibit distinct behavioral patterns. "Monkeys are hip to that."
Under no circumstance should an untrained professional approach a wild monkey. In addition to potential harm a monkey could inflict on a human, such as a bite or disease, people can also spread disease to the animals or disrupt their natural eating, foraging, or behavioral patterns. Remaining a safe and respectful distance is always the best way to observe wildlife.