Monkeys in Nepal Provide New Data on Urban Toxicity

monkeys at a temple photo

Image credit: mattspinner/Flickr

In South and Southeast Asia, monkeys and people are synanthropic. It sounds complicated, but all this means is that they share the same ecological niche.

Some species, like macaques, are very similar in behavior, diet, and even anatomical composition to their human neighbors. Now, some scientists are taking advantage of these similarities by using macaques as sentinels for urban toxicity.Dr. Lisa Jones-Engel, a research scientist at the National Primate Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle and senior author of the study, explained that "macaques are similar to humans anatomically, physiologically and behaviorally." Dr. Gregory Engel, a physician and lead author of the study, added that macaques "are also similar in their response to toxic exposures."

monkey at swayambhunath photo

Image credit: David DeFranza/Flickr

By taking hair samples from three separate groups of free-ranging macaques based around the Swayambhu temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, researchers established that levels of toxins, especially lead, were higher in younger individuals than older members of the groups.

Dr. Jones-Engel explained:

Young macaques share a propensity for curiosity and have a penchant for picking up objects and inserting them into their mouths, just as young children do...a juvenile macaque has all the curiosity and energy of a toddler, and then some! Plus their parents aren't well informed about environmental hazards.

Since miners started sending canaries into the shaft in the 19th century, animals have been recognized and utilized as sentinels for humans. This new research, however, highlights the fact that some species are more suitable than others.

Though more research is needed, scientists hope that synantrhopic macaques, monitored through chemical analysis of hair, could be use to create toxicity maps of urban areas.

Read more about animal sentinels:
Amphibians Dethroned as Environmental Canaries
Trees are Air Pollution Sentinels
Bees, Plankton, and Canaries: Who is to blame; Them or Us?

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