Learn a new animal day! Siamang edition.

I’m going to give you a leg up on the average zoo visitor today and teach you about this animal:


Well, on a typical day while cleaning/feeding around this animal, I hear the following on a regular basis:

“Look at the monkey!”
“I love it when that howler monkey yells!”
“(Name of small child), what does the monkey say?” “Ooh ooh aah aahh!”
“Oooh, it’s a baby gorilla! I didn’t know they had gorillas!”
“Look at the chimpanzee!”

There are others, but that’s the usual. If I have time, I’ll tell people what those animals really are (there are two of them), but I don’t usually have time. I wish there was a good sign, but this zoo is (in my opinion) seriously lacking in the sign department; signs are either tiny and faded (like the one on this exhibit– it has one, but people don’t notice it and so don’t read it), or they’re entirely too wordy and most people (especially with kids) don’t have time to read tiny font.

Anyway, let’s look at this animal and what people say about it.

“Look at that monkey!”
First of all, look closely at these animals’ bodies. Do you see a tail? No. This is not a monkey. Just because it’s a primate, doesn’t make it a monkey. It’s sort of like you’re calling a lion a wolf because they’re furry and have four legs and eat meat. Sound silly? Well, primates are in the order Primate (surprise surprise) but after that, they’re subdivided into different families before we even get to genus and species. Lions and wolves also share an order (Carnivora) but are, like apes and monkeys, not in the same family. See? Not as silly as you think. A more obvious example? Moths and butterflies are in the same order, but clearly not the same animal. People don’t usually get those confused, so why do most people call all primates monkeys? I blame Curious George (but I’ll get back to that).

“I love it when that howler monkey yells!”
Okay, we’ve already established that it’s not a monkey, so I won’t say it again. (I’ll admit that in my head is a voice yelling NOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEY!!! quite a bit, though.) This one bothers me for two reasons. The first is the assumption that because this animal is very vocal (and they do have a loud, distinct call) that it’s a howler monkey. I know howlers are on Animal Planet all the time for being extremely loud, but there are a lot of other primates that are very loud, too. An example would be the family (again with classification) that includes all of the gibbons (and hey! these animals are a type of gibbon!). Here’s an example of a gibbon calling in the wild. Here’s an actual howler monkey sound. And here’s a video of the same type of animal pictured above. See? Lots of noisy primates. Second point: when an animal is making a loud noise, it’s not because it’s excited to see you, or is showing off, or is “putting on a show” (I hear that one all the time, too). Usually these animals get worked up when there’s a huge crowd of children all yelling at them and they feel territorial (their exhibit has viewing on all sides so they can be “surrounded,” which is poor exhibit design, but just the way it is), so they yell. They also yell when it’s close to food-time (which is twice a day) and first thing in the morning. It’s a territorial display, not a “show” for you.

“(Name of small child), what does the monkey say?” “Ooh ooh aah aahh!”
(NOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEY!!!) Okay, I get that you’re trying to get your child engaged and interact with you at the zoo, but teaching the kids to roar at the lion or make monkey calls at the primates isn’t teaching good behavior. The sounds people teach kids at zoos are usually the animals’ loudest sounds that, guess what, are the aggressive sounds. Are you sure you want to teach your kid to make aggressive noises at animals? Maybe not such a good survival strategy. On top of that, monkeys don’t make that noise anyway. That’s a chimp sound.

“Oooh, it’s a baby gorilla! I didn’t know they had gorillas!”
Well, the zoo doesn’t have gorillas. They’re not anywhere on the map. Of course, these guys aren’t either, which brings me back to this whole signage issue (someone should really do something about that), but they absolutely don’t have gorillas at the zoo. Besides that, other than it having black hair, do those animals seriously look like gorillas??

That’s a gorilla. If you’ve ever seen one, you know it’s HUGE and doesn’t look like the animal I’m showing at the top, except for the color. Again, similar to looking at a rhinoceros and saying “Look at the elephant!” because they’re both large and have gray skin. And baby gorillas? Baby gorillas look like babies. Not like another primate that has black hair and happens to be smaller than a gorilla. There are LOTS of primates that fit this description. Points for not calling it a monkey, though; gorillas are apes, though they are great apes and these are lesser apes, it’s at least a little better.

“Look at the chimpanzee!”
Almost there! The ones that say this (I’m assuming) realize that they’re looking at an ape and not a monkey (unless they think a chimp is a monkey, which is very likely since most people on TV call chimps “monkeys” NOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEY!!!), and that it’s too small to be a gorilla. The thing is, if you’ve ever seen a photo of a chimp, then you know it also looks nothing like this animal. There’s also the fact that the zoo does have chimps (nine of them!) and they’re in a totally different section of the zoo AND clearly marked on the map (being popular animals).

On a slightly separate note, if you know anything about chimps or gorillas, do you really think we’d have them in a smallish, WIDE OPEN exhibit like that? Does that make any sense to YOU at all? Didn’t think so.

So what is that animal?
Glad you asked. It’s a siamang! There are two of them at the zoo, and they’re loud and can be very active. They’re lesser apes (a type of gibbon to be specific), and are found in Asia. They have these big throat pouches that they fill with air to make the loud call I showed you in the video, and they love to swing and flip around in the trees. Not monkeys, gorillas or chimps, but especially not monkeys. No tails. Plus, they walk more upright than on all fours and have a relatively large head compared to their bodies, which are all hallmarks of apes. Monkeys have tails, walk more using all four limbs equally, and have relatively smaller heads compared to their bodies.

Knowing all of that, what is Curious George? The books, TV shows, etc, call him a monkey, but he is, in fact, an ape. Oh, George, you silly primate.

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