Nov 112009
photo provided courtesy of tibchris on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeWestern Africa
Habitattropical forest floor
Nichelarge omnivore
Favorite Foodfruit
Lengthup to 3 feet
Weightup to 80 pounds
StatusVulnerable to Extinction
Threatshunting, habitat destruction

The rainforests of Central Africa have long been known as dark, forbidding places. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” was set in this otherworldly realm of dense vegetation and hidden dangers. A cryptid named Mokele-Mbembe reputedly lurks in the swamps of the Congo Basin, a lost relic from a distant time in the past. It is a land that is both massive and claustrophobic, a mix of enormous trees with thick underbrush. Many animals blend in among the foliage, but there is one animal that wants to be seent,  making its statement with bright, striking coloration under the trees.

Few animals of the Africa boast such unmistakable features as the mandrill. Sky-blue cheeks taper into its bright red nose sitting over a golden beard. The gaudy coloration of the males is their asset in the mating season, where they attempt to outlook and outdo other males in the quest for females, who are 1/3 the size. Pound for pound, male mandrills are the largest monkeys in the world. Unlike monkeys that dwell exclusively in trees, the mandrill’s legs are of equal length, perfectly adapted for running on all fours on the ground like baboons. However, a troop of mandrills will seek safety in the trees when night falls. This adaptation is especially important in a land where formidable predators hunt at night.

Mandrills are omnivorous and spend most of the day foraging on the forest floor for fruit, seeds, insects, fungi, roots,  and the occasional small animal. They live in groups called “troops” of about 20 individuals, with some large troops reaching as many as 250. Like baboons, Mandrill society is based around a hierarchy with the dominant male at the top. This male earns the right to mate with the females of the group until another male challenges his dominance. The size difference between male and female mandrills is partly explained through this hierarchy. Generally, males of mammal species that mate with many different females show a much greater size difference than those of species that pair for life.

Socializing helps bind mandrill troops together, and grooming is the most important social activity. Members of the troop will take turns picking insects and parastites from the backs of others when they are resting. Also, members will communicate with each other through grunts. These vocalizations help the group to be alerted of dangers and signal when to move on to a new area of forest. The troops move over great distances and will readily defend their territory against unwelcome outsiders. Males attempt to frighten enemies by “yawning” wide, brandishing their two and a half inch long incisors. If the sight of this alone is not enough to deter a foe, the mandrill will rush forward, barking and grunting loudly to scare it off.

Mandrills are rapidly disappearing in the forests of Cameroon and Gabon they have called home for thousands of years. Increased logging and poaching of these animals has cut their numbers significantly. Once common across the rainforests, mandrills are now vulnerable to extinction.

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