The Mystery of the Monkeys on the Rock

WHEN you think of monkeys, you probably think of the Tropics. Few species of monkeys venture into temperate lands. Nevertheless, there are one or two notable exceptions.

In the high Atlas Mountains of North Africa, where snowfall is common during the winter, small groups of Barbary apes roam through forests of cedar and oak. * One isolated group of these monkeys can be found 200 miles [300 km] to the north, marooned on the Rock of Gibraltar, at the southernmost tip of Europe.

How do naturalists explain this mystery? Some believe that the monkeys colonized other areas of Europe in the distant past and that those of Gibraltar are the only surviving group. Others think that Arabic or British colonizers brought them to the Rock. Legend has it that the monkeys crossed the narrow straits dividing Europe from Africa by means of a long-lost underground tunnel. Whatever their origin, they are now the only free-range monkeys found in Europe.

The Barbary apes inhabit the pine woods that cover the upper part of the Rock. Although they number only a hundred or so, they have become “the peninsula’s most famous residents,” according to the International Primate Protection League. *

Since seven million tourists visit Gibraltar every year, the mischievous monkeys have an ample food supply. Although they forage for wild plants, they have become adept at begging​—and occasionally stealing—​food from visitors. Local authorities also provide the monkeys with fruit and vegetables.

Apart from feeding, the monkeys spend 20 percent of their day grooming each other. Both male and female monkeys care for and play with the young ones. They live in close-knit groups, where stress sometimes leads to confrontation. While the older monkeys use threats and screams to chase away the younger ones, they also have an unusual tooth-chattering behavior that seems to calm them down.

Their arrival on Gibraltar may remain a mystery; still, these sociable monkeys add a special charm to the limestone headland that guards the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. Gibraltar would not be the same without them.


^ par. 3 Barbary apes are not actually apes. They are tailless monkeys.

^ par. 5 Japanese macaques, their cousins, have also become a famous tourist attraction at the hot springs in Japan where they congregate in winter.