Babies In The Forest

10th July 2010

October-november have seen the birth of the ringtail lemur and vervet babies; the squirrel monkey babies are expected for around december-january, and the capuchins baby season, which as started in october, should go on until january or february. So for all of you whose hearts melt in front of the little one, come and experience our baby season live at monkeyland. In the meanwhile here are a few facts about baby primates that might answer some of your questions.


Gestation, interval, number


The gestation period varies a lot according to species, ranging from 3-4 months for the most "primitive" species, like the black and white ruffed lemur or the bushbaby, to 9 months for the most "evolved" ones, like the gorilla. In general, though, the carrying time is roughly 4-5 months for lemurs, 5-6 for monkeys, and 7-8 for apes. Monkeys and apes give normally birth to a single young, with the exception of miniature monkeys (marmosets and tamarins) that have normally twins, like many lemur species. An exception in Monkeyland is the black and white ruffed lemur which can have up to 6 babies in one litter (thanks to their 6 nipples to suckle them all!), though the usual number is 2 or 3. Most species give birth every year, or every second year, but for apes the birth interval is much longer, around 3 years for a gibbon, 5 or 6 for a chimpanzee.




From the first day of their birth, most little primates cling to their mother and are carried 24 hours a day: they can sleep on their mother’s back or stomach and won’t fall even if she is running and jumping from tree to tree! Even a newborn human baby has that ability to grip that is vital for the survival of baby primates, in the wild: an heritage from an old lost time before baby carriages? For Old World monkeys (Africa and Asia) the babies are carried on the stomach, while New World monkeys (central and south America) carry them on the back. Ringtail lemurs carry their babies on the stomach for the first 10 days or so, before they migrate to a more confortable position, on the mother’s back. Likewise young baboons, as they grow a bit older, abandon the stomach position to ride jockey style on the mother’s back. The one exception in Monkeyland is, once again, the black and white ruffed lemur. The babies lack that ability to grip and, besides, the mother cannot carry so many offsprings at once. So instead, she builds a nest in the trees, with branches. The babies are born there and stay in the nest until they are old enough to follow her, at around 2 weeks. In case of a danger, she will do like a cat: graps one in her mouth and carry it to safety before coming back to pick another one. The only problem is that lemurs are not extremely clever, so the poor mother tends to forget where she left her babies, and sometimes loses one this way! The babies help by growing very fast and also have a special contact call with the mother to assist in recovery.


Weaning and parental care


Weaning can be as early as 2-3 months in the case of marmosets, and up to 3 years in chimpanzees. Accordingly, the length of time a youngster will be carried for varies a lot. Our ringtail lemurs, squirrel monkeys or vervets commonly carry their babies for about 3 or 4 months, but a capuchin is often carried way after 6 months, though not full time, and a gibbon for about 2 and a half years.


Parental care, in primates, is usually the sole mother’s responsibility. The males often ignore the little one completely, like in squirrel monkeys or vervets, or give them a little bit of attention by licking them or socializing with them, like for ringtail lemurs or capuchins. They will, most of the time, defend the young ones against any kind of danger. But for the miniature monkeys, it is an altogether different story: after the first few days of they lives the babies switch from the mother’s back to the father’s, and he then assumes the responsibility of carrying, grooming and looking after the little ones that come back to the mother only to be fed! If there are more males than females in the group, the marmoset males will share the burden of taking care of babies, each one carrying one.


The older siblings will also assist the parents in raising the youngs. For capuchins, also, the mother is not the sole one involved in taking care of the babies. Those very clever monkeys have developped a baby-sitting system where a young mother is followed by an "assistant", usually a youngster, male or female, or another close friend or family member. After a couple of months, the mother will hand her baby over to that one that will act as a baby-sitter for a while, carrying the baby and taking care of it, leaving the mother free to do something else. In some cases even big dominant males carry the babies for a short time but it is probably a way for them to be on good terms with the mother for the next mating season! For vervet teenage females babies are a great source of interest.

They are always willing to carry them and cuddle them and mothers usually allow even newborn babies to be handled. In case of a danger, any female around will pick up a stranded baby and carry it to safety until the mother can take over.




In many species, the babies have a different colour at birth than the parents. Like baby baboons, vervets are born with a pink face and black hair and the spectacled langurs’ babies are born orange, when the adults are grey. In the case of the langurs, scientists think it could be a protection against predators, especially birds of prey, that see colours.


Indeed, bright colours in nature are often an indication for something dangerous or poisonous: an eagle might thus leave the little langur alone. Langurs turn grey, for a better camouflage, when they are strong enough to defend themselves. Yet another explanation for the difference in colour could come from the fact that monkeys tend to be very rough with each others, including youngsters: a different colour for babies could be a warning sign for their own peers that those little ones still need to be treated with special care.