The Monkey Who Went Into the Cold

The heavy fur of China’s snub-nosed monkey is a boon in subzero winters. Its quirky face could help too.

This story appears in the February 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Tucked high in the Qin Ling Mountains of central China, a nimble primate with a peculiar mug has conquered a pitiless landscape. The golden snub-nosed monkey is one of five related species—remnants of once widespread populations whose ranges were squeezed by climate change after the last ice age. Enduring groups, living in territorial bands that can top 400 animals, are being squeezed again by logging, human settlement, and hunters wanting meat, bones (said to have medicinal properties), and luxurious fur. Many have been pushed into high-altitude isolation, where they leap across branches, traverse icy rivers, and weather long winters at nearly 10,000 feet, shielded by that coveted coat.

About 20,000 of the golden variety remain on Earth. Some 4,000 inhabit the mountainous region where Chinese officials set up the Zhouzhi National Nature Reserve to protect the species. Living both in and out of reserve boundaries, Rhinopithecus roxellana, whose Latin name was allegedly inspired by the snub-nosed concubine of a 1500s sultan, has made great adaptations to survive, subsisting on low-protein lichens and bark when trees are bare. Large social networks help fend off predators, like clouded leopards.

Moms outrank barren females in these snub-nosed societies, and males with multiple mates gain high status. So do males that display "courage and perseverance," says biologist Qi Xiao-Guang of Northwest University in Xian, China. Bands may clash when ranges overlap, and "males show their vigor by fighting and forcing the enemy out." Territorial animals, including these and other primates, often do more posturing than injuring—mainly to protect themselves.

Why the odd face? No one is sure, but Penn State primatologist Nina Jablonski suggests the flat muzzle evolved to combat extreme cold, "which would cause frostbite to bare, exposed, fleshy noses."