Saturday, October 16, 2010

Interspecies grooming at The Bronx Zoo

Interspecies grooming between Bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata) and Gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus thersites) at Kalakkad and Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, India. Photo from TrekNature by Gopi.

Interspecies grooming is not unheard of and does occur naturally. While grooming can be dyadic and triadic (or even more), it can also be one-directional. Since grooming is central to primate sociality, there are reported instances of grooming between two different species of primates or even between a primate and non-primate. Grooming has many functions: hygiene, social bonding and even gaining favor.

I found this video yesterday (above) on Youtube by thekingchivas. I could not believe my eyes with what the camera caught. It shows a Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus) being groomed by a White-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys). After doing a Google search, I realize that this is not an isolated incident. Apparently The Bronx Zoo is also aware of this behavior and had posted its own video, which seems to be a separate incident from the one caught by thekingchivas.

I'm not going to definitively say that the tapir will not reciprocate in this grooming but chances are highly unlikely. I wonder what makes these gibbons (there were two females in the exhibit, The Bronx Zoo currently has a mated pair) groom their fellow exhibit-mate. While this might not be an altruistic exchange, we can view it as a mutual symbiotic relationship. Neither animal had its fitness reduced, so it is not altruism. Instead, both individuals benefit from this interaction so it is symbiotic.

The gibbons meticulously groom the tapir to remove insects, which in turns become a tasty snack for these gibbons. The tapir on the other hand, benefits by having pesky insects removed off its body. Is it significant that both animals are female? Is this behavior natural? There are recorded accounts of interspecies grooming between primates and non-primates, so it is quite likely.

A macaque grooming a goat on the streets of Chilkur, India. An example of mutual symbiosis between a primate and a non-primate. Photo by Libran Lover from A Lover's Journal.

A langur grooming a pig in Jaipur, India. Somehow nature managed to put two animals that I have polar opposite feelings together (one I love, the other I hate). Another example of mutual symbiosis between a primate and a non-primate. Photo by Christa Kate Hyland from Laddus and Langis.

The range of both Malayan tapirs and White-cheeked gibbons does not overlap. Malayan tapirs occur in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar while White-cheeked gibbons are found in Vietnam, Laos and the Yunnan province of China. Therefore, interspecies grooming between Malayan tapir and White-cheeked gibbon is probably a novel behavior that cannot be observed in the wild.

Map shows the current and historic range of Malayan tapir, as of 2003. Notice that Malayan tapirs do not occur in Vietnam, Laos nor China (Yunnan province) where White-cheek gibbons occur. Illustration by Sasha Kopf from Wikipedia.

1 comment:

Albertonykus said...

Interesting, I didn't know this behavior was so common. I was pleasantly surprised at the Vancouver Aquarium when I saw an emperor tamarin and a pygmy marmoset grooming one another.