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Primates from a Concrete Jungle

Dr Simon D Pollard

If our hominid ancestors had not walked upright and evolved big brains, it's unlikely I would have been born into a culture that allowed me to develop a curiosity about the lives of spiders.

However being bipedal and big brained can have its costs, and I had postponed having my hip replaced to look for Asian spiders with Robert Jackson, who was recovering from a huge sinus operation. I limped horribly but, with a cane from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at least it was dignified limping.

Robert walked fine, but the contents of his head routinely threatened to erupt into a special effect from Alien.

We were literally and figuratively dragging our bodies through Asia to look for a most extraordinary group of spiders -- jumping spiders. I doubt whether David Bowie was thinking of this group when he wrote about extraterrestrial arachnids, but jumping spiders might as well have come from Mars.

They have two large eyes that bulge out from their face, like car headlights, with another smaller eye on either side. Four more small eyes sit on top of the spider's head. The two front eyes provide excellent sight, which is unique among spiders, while the other six eyes are mainly for detecting movement.

When the spider needs to see something, it turns its head, so the two front eyes can have a look. I always find it slightly unnerving, when a jumping spider lifts its head and stares back at me.

Like us, these spiders are visual animals, and it is not surprising that many species have moustache-like tufts, punk-style haircuts, and jewel-coloured scales decorating their faces and bodies to attract mates and thwart rivals. Males display to females with elaborate dancing, involving leg waving and body posturing. Imagine diminutive primates at a nightclub showing off their outrageous fashion sense.

Although we were looking for primate-like spiders, primates, primate themes, metaphors and analogies followed us around like the 30 macaques that surrounded our house at daybreak on our first morning in Bako National Park in Southern Sarawak, Borneo.

We had been warned about this gang and removed the identifying label from our Fortnum and Mason's "assorted bananas" picnic hamper. Although the houses were fortified against primate attack, the previous day some visitors had left their kitchen unlocked and it was ransacked by macaques.

The macaques also hung around the restaurant where the tables and chairs were on a verandah. While we sat drinking coffee, we noticed hairy little arms and heads appear through the railings. A raid was imminent and sluggish humans offered little resistance. One monkey ran along a table, past five drowsy Englishmen and snatched a packet of biscuits. Another terrorised four Japanese women by grabbing handfuls of noodles from their soup bowls.

A young macaque ran off with a bottle of chilli sauce, then, when possibly some memory of a previous chilli experience surfaced, it dropped the bottle. Other monkeys scuttled around the verandah looking for dropped food before staff rushed from the kitchen with brooms and the small hairy thieves took off into the bush.

Tranquillity returned and a two metre monitor lizard strolled across the lawn in front of the verandah, while a bearded pig, its jowls like two broom-heads, rooted around in the dirt nearby.

Testimony to a fate far worse than being chased from a verandah, were the fire-blackened skulls of several macaques which hung from the walls of a dimly lit shop in Kuching. Around each skull was wrapped a boar tusk, with a smaller tusk protruding from the nasal cavity. Boar and monkey teeth dangled like huge earrings where the lower jaw used to be. The skulls were used as lucky charms, but were obviously luckless for the macaques whose scheming brains once filled the burnt craniums.

Bako National Park is not only home to macaques, the rats of the primate world, but also the proboscis monkey, which is endemic to Borneo and lives in lowland forest and mangrove swamps. They are one of the heaviest monkeys and are often heard, but not seen, as they crash through the trees in groups of up to twenty.

The male proboscis monkey's proboscis is long and droopy and looks like grotesque make-up that has been stuck to their face for a primate pantomime. Old males often have to hold their nose up with one hand, while they stuff leaves into their mouth with the other.

For male proboscis monkeys, size does matter; they extend their nose and penis, like party streamers, to impress females and to scare off rivals. The latter is permanently inflated. Like monkeys on Viagra, bouncing through trees and impressing females by dropping up to six metres into water must be very uncomfortable. Maybe, this is why males always appear to have a sad expression on their face.

I am sure both sexes would be gobbling Prozac if they knew how they were represented in the Sarawak Museum in Kuching. The specimens date from last century and appear to have been prepared by a taxidermist inspired by Hieronymus Bosch.

I hope this taxidermist was never allowed to embalm people for viewing. He fitted the monkeys with extra large glass eyes, added putty noses to replace the shrivelled originals and arranged their mouths to look like they were trying to say the word "who". The poor monkeys' frozen expressions and bulging eyes made them look as I imagine they would if they were alive and met one of their taxidermist's creations.

The primate that dressed up macaque skulls and mounted monkeys in museums also used to hang human skulls as trophies from headhunting expeditions.

I'm sure, in our present condition and in another time, Robert and I would have ended up bobbing around in somebody's living room as the Bornean equivalent of lava lamps. However, we left Borneo in the same condition as we arrived and entered Barong National Park in South Sulawesi, the Y-shaped island east of Borneo, our car driving between the legs of a huge stone monkey.

It seemed fitting that, as primates from a concrete jungle, we entered the real jungle by passing under a concrete primate.

Dr Simon D Pollard is Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at Canterbury Museum.