You’re a Barbary macaque high in the Atlas Mountains of Morrocco. A fellow monkey comes towards you and hands you an infant. You’re now both holding the mini monkey, and you’ve just made an ally. This behavior is known as “sandwiching”, and it’s how Barbary macaques curry favor with troop mates – an important skill if you’re going to rise to the top.
This Christmas, you can follow the journey of a macaque named Mac (see what they did there?) rise to fame in a new David Attenborough documentary from the BBC, Macaque: Monkeys In The Mountains – A Dynasties Special will air on December 30 and showcases life as a macaque alpha. Spoiler: it ain’t easy.
Mac faces treachery, deposition, and banishment in his fight to stay on top – but it’s a war worth waging when the prize is the chance to start your own dynasty. We caught up with series producer Rosie Thomas to find out more about Mac, macaques, and what it’s like filming monkeys in the mountains.
Tell us a little about Mac.
Mac is the newly crowned alpha male of a group of Barbary Macaques in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Not wanting to anthropomorphize, but as we followed him over the course of 18 months he certainly seemed like a kind and caring alpha who took the time to look after the females and the youngsters of his troop. He didn’t go looking for trouble if he could avoid it but was always first in line to protect his group when necessary! It turned out that he is one of only 2 males the scientists know of (in their 18 years following the group) to not have dispersed to find a new group when he reached adulthood!
Are there any characteristics unique to macaque troops?
There are several different species of macaque, so I guess the question is more, are there any characteristics that are unique to Barbary macaques.
They are one of only a few species that carry out an unusual behavior called ‘sandwiching’ – a bizarre bonding social interaction where friendships are made, and alliances formed between adults… by holding a baby together! One male bringing a baby to another can help him curry favor with a higher-ranking individual. It was totally fascinating to watch how social politics played out, entirely based around the infants!
Do you have a highlight from the special?
The very opening to the film – when we arrived to start filming there was a huge power struggle underway as the previous alpha male had disappeared during COVID lockdowns and no one knew where he’d gone. But this allowed us to witness Mac rise to the top spot and take the crown, in an extremely rare event – the previous alpha had ruled for over 8 years. I feel very lucky to have been able to capture this unique set of events with the help of the research team, and be able to follow Mac for such a long period of time.
What’s something everyone should know about these animals?
There are so many amazing things about Barbary macaques, but I think the thing that I really want people to know is the reality of the world these monkeys now find themselves in. Their numbers are dwindling in the wild and they are now listed as endangered – climate change is severely affecting their habitat, along with deforestation in much of their range, and the threat of poaching is constant despite so much trying to be done to prevent it.
Catch Macaque: Monkeys In The Mountains – A Dynasties Special on BBC One on December 30.