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The Snow Monkey

Japanese Macaque, Macaca Fuscata

atJigokudani Park, Nagano, Japan

This ball of cuteness is a Macaca Fuscata, also known as Japanese Macaque or Snow Monkey. Ever since seeing a picture of one of them in a hot spring, I was eager to see them in person. This highly intelligent primate is part of the Old World monkey family native from Japan.
They are found on three of the four main Japanese islands: Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Their habitat varies throughout these islands from subalpine, subtropical, deciduous, and evergreen forest mountains.
Those that occupy the northernmost regions, which range mostly through the forested mountains and highlands of Japan, thrive in winter temperatures that fall as low as -5°F (-15°C) and with snow cover that is more than 3ft (1m) deep. ​Coming across a picture of them is quite easy, as they are famously warming themselves by bathing in hot thermal springs that are heated by nearby volcanoes. Aside humans, they are the northern most primate and pretty much the only ones ever witnessing snow. And so combine unusal sight -- monkeys more commonly associated with hot climate -- and a good amount of cuteness and you have the recipe for something adorable.
But how did they figure it out? Is it, like elephants in Africa rolling in mud to escape the scorching heat, a long learnt behavior to protect themselves from the elements? Unfortunatly, no. Because humans. Read on.
Japanese macaques adapted to the Japanese environment after they diverged from rhesus macaques approximately 0.31 to 0.88 million years ago . They adapted to survive even in the snowy environments of mountainous areas or in northern areas where the temperatures reach below −8°F (−22°C) during the winter. This is in great part because they have suitable food habits for survival in variable environments, eating fruits, stems, yong and mature leaves. They have been featured prominently in religion, folklore, and art of Japan, as well as in proverbs and idiomatic expressions in the Japanese language. The famous "three wise monkeys" originated in Japan. Statues of them are set at crossroads in honour of Koshin, the God of Roads. There, their slogan is Mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru, ‘No seeing, no hearing, no speaking’, with a pun on saru, Japanese for ‘Monkey’, and it is used seriously to teach prudence and purity.
These paintings are by Mori Sosen, they are some of the early depictions from Japanese Macaque in the Japanese culture.
So the monkeys have been here before us, but what about the hot springs? Well no one knows for sure, but in 1963, a young female snow monkey named Mukubili waded into a hot spring in the Nagano Mountains to retrieve some soybeans that had been thrown in by researchers who were provisioning the monkeys with food in an effort to keep them out of local orchards. And that is the first record of monkeys in hot spring. A human made one. But was this new to them? that's unclear, what followed next indicates that perhaps it was new. Mukubili liked the warmth and soon other young monkeys joined her. At first the behavior caught on only with the young macaques and their mothers. Over some years, the rest of the troop took the plunge to find shelter in the 109°F (43°C) hot springs to escape the winter cold. When they began to invade nearby hot tubs and human spas, government officials decided to build the Nagano macaques their own hot springs, and thus came to be the Jigokudani Park.
That said, amongst other things, the popularity of the sight of bathing monkeys helped attract attention and funds to furthert protect the species. One of the behavior that is also very easy to observe there is the allo-grooming. One monkey picks through the hair of another with hands or teeth, removing skin, dirt or ticks. Allo-grooming is used to develop and maintain bonds between individuals. Females form stable life-long attachments, maintained through grooming, touch and close proximity. Males groom females more during the mating season. Macaques may also groom after conflicts to repair damaged relationships or console each other.
Both giving and receiving grooming releases B-endorphins; after conflict situations, these may reduce pain from injury and relieve stress more quickly.
As Japan continues to develop, encounters between Japanese macaques and humans are becoming more and more frequent. Deforestation has led to loss of important habitat for these monkeys, which, in turn, has led to human wildlife conflict. Snow monkeys have been officially protected in Japan since 1947. However, they are knonw to raid crops and are considered to be agricultural pests. So despite protection, the rights of farmers have taken precedence over laws protecting the macaques that eat their crops, and many get shot every year. ​ Japanese macaques are fascinating, curious, playful and let's be honest quite cute animals. The Convention on International Trade has them listed in the Endangered Species as "Least concerned", which means although the species is not immediately threatened, it's still being monitored and protected.
Exctinct
Threatened
Least Concern
EX
EW
CR
EN
VU
NT
LC
Lastly, from a photographic standpoint, they are very very easy to capture. Visiting the Jigokudani Park will almost guarantee you great shots, they are numerous and are not afraid of humans whatsoever. Of course you should keep your distances and be respectful. But if you pick the right season, late November through March, you have great odds to get stunning shots of these fascinating primates.