High in the scrublands and fir forests of the Atlas Mountains roams a unique primate. The Barbary Macaque (Macaca sylvanus) is Africa's only macaque species—all other macaques (there are over 20 species in the genus) live in Asia. Apart from humans, no other primate species lives so far north as the Barbary Macaque.
The Barbary Macaque is a large primate, weighing between 10 and 15kg. They have silky brown fur and a dark pink face. Unlike most of their relatives, Barbary macaques do not have a tail (at least not any more). Their tail is vestigial—an underdeveloped and no-longer-used body part, a leftover from the Barbary's evolutionary past (like the pelvic bones of whales or the wings of ostriches).
The Barbary Macaques' home range, the Atlas Mountains, form an arc along the coast of northwest Africa. The Atlas Mountains stretch across Morocco, through Algeria, and into Tunisia and separate the Mediterranean Sea, to the north, from the Sahara Desert, to the south. Sadly, throughout their native range, Barbary Macaque populations are declining.
The IUCN has listed the Barbary Macaque as vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species. In 1980, a population study was performed and concluded that there were as many as 20,000 Barbary macaques in Africa. Today, their population has shrunk to about half of what it was in 1980, in large part due to the destruction of forest habitat throughout their range.
Despite the decline in Barbary Macaques throughout northwest Africa, there is a small but somewhat stable population of about 200 individuals in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory that lies at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. The Barbary Macaques of Gibraltar are Europe's only species of primate apart from man. Yet, the origin of Gibraltar's Barbary Macaques is a mystery. Some experts believe the population was introduced to the region by the Moors over 500 years ago, while others feel the present day macaques are the descendants of populations that were widespread throughout Southern Europe over 5 million years ago.
The Barbary Macaques of Gibraltar hold special significance. Tradition states that if the Barbary Macaques ever disappear from Gibraltar, then Britain would lose the strategic territory. So in 1942, when the Barbary Macaque population in Gibraltar shrank almost to extinction, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the replenishment of the Barbary Macaque population.
Find out more:
- Scientists use DNA to solve mystery of Gibraltar's macaques (Field Museum)
- The Integration of Biology and Behavior in the Socialization of Macaca sylvana of Gibraltar (University of Toronto)
- Holding on in the Djebela: Barbary Macaque Macaca sylvanus in Northern Morocco (Oryx)
- Mystery of Churchill's WWII Monkeys Solved (LiveScience)
Top: Photo © Vliet / iStockphoto (Barbary Macaque). Middle: Photo © Tomasz Resiak / iStockphoto (Atlas Mountains). Bottom: Photo © David Stanley / iStockphoto (Barbary Macaque at Gibraltar).