Monkeys Hug to Head Off Conflict, Study Finds

Mason Inman
for National Geographic News
March 2, 2007

Like Ari "Hug It Out" Gold on HBO's Entourage, spider monkeys reportedly use well-placed embraces to ease group tension.

But unlike Jeremy Piven's slimy superagent, the monkeys use hugs—plus the occasional French-style cheek-to-cheek touch and a bit of mutual armpit sniffing—at the start of a large meeting, presumably to keep things from getting aggressive in the first place.

Spider monkey groups continually split apart into subgroups and then later come together again.

Even among monkeys that know each other, these reunions can be full of tension and uncertainty about what the others will do, and the gatherings sometimes escalate into aggression.

"These embraces are used to try to avoid some of the uncertainty" between the groups and return quickly to everyday activity, said the leader of the study, primatologist Filippo Aureli of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom.

Although the embraces only last a moment, "they speed up that process," Aureli added.

Aureli and his colleagues noted that the monkeys that hugged rarely became belligerent toward each other or other monkeys during a period of fusion.

The study is based on observations of wild black-handed spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) in a forest on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula and was published recently in the journal Biology Letters (Mexico map).

(Related: "Monkeys Show Sense Of Fairness, Study Says" [September 17, 2003].)

Who's a Huggy Monkey?

Groups that regularly split apart and come together can be cliquish, and that can often be a cause of conflict at reunions, the study found.

"Individuals can move away to avoid conflicts over resources [such as food] or the decision of where to go," Aureli said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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