A grass diet would be awesome.

You don’t need to cook it or catch it, there’s always enough for everyone, even an enormous group of unexpected guests, and it’s so rubbish in nutritional terms, you’re entirely justified sitting down all day and eating a quarter of your body weight. And if you’re also a gelada, you’re spared the usual primate indignity of a bright red bum.

Sitting pretty

This seems odd since it spends most of its day sat on it, but it has special fatty pads on its cheeks, so it avoids sore redness too. Any strangeness is relegated to its punk-rocker mane, (facial!) cheek tassels, and shrivelled narrow face like it just finished sucking a lemon. It also has an egg-timer shaped patch on its chest, and since its bum is usually hidden from view due to sitting and eating, this is where the red goes instead when it wants to impress the ladies, let the chaps know who’s in heat, or who’s boss. Or which one isn’t worth the energy to fight.

Or the karma.

The (2.7) mile-high club

Living up to 4,400m (1,443 ft) high in the Ethiopian plateau means oxygen can be at a premium, even if food and company are not. Rather than brawling amongst themselves, the males are usually content to bare their red chests and long fangs to keep order. You don’t want to waste energy when you have a harem of ladies to watch over, and since the sisterhood can be strong and literal, you don’t want to annoy them either, or they might form a coalition and trade you in. It turns out there’s plenty of choice on that front.

Primate party

The gelada forms one of the biggest groups of any primate. While individual “units” can be one male and several females, they will sometimes form herds of over 1,000. You can probably imagine the noise, especially as it also has one of the most extensive vocal ranges among primates, but it helps keep it safe from the likes of hyenas, lions, and the humans who consider them pests. But they don’t avoid all the predators.

An unexpected dinner guest

The Ethiopian wolf, which both looks like and hunts individually like a fox, is free to wander right through a gelada herd, provided it behaves itself and only eats the rodents that are blissfully unaware or flushed out of cover. That’s a fair trade when it ups your hunting success from 25 to 67 percent! Fortunately, gelada hunting seems to have gone in the other direction.

No more monkey business…?

Formerly caught to make caps for tourists, the gelada seems to have been let off the hook for now, at least in terms of being worn by human visitors. And rightly so – it’s the only species in its genus, and a remnant of a world where its gorilla-sized ancestors were widespread. Its flaming chest gave it the nickname “bleeding heart baboon”, despite neither being true, but perhaps we’re the ones who’ve taken pity on something for once!


Latin: Theropithecus gelada

What? Baboon-like monkey that lives on the Ethiopian plateau, or the “Rooftop of Africa”

Where? High grassland in the mountains of Ethiopia

How big? From nose to tail, males are 1.1 m-1.2 m /3.7 ft -4 ft, females 0.8 m –1 m / 2.6-3.5 ft

Endangered?  Currently Least Concern, although local land development and competition with cattle can spell trouble.

Probable motto: I sit down and eat all day. I’m a monkey after my own heart.

They look cool. Do they need my help at all?

Tourist trophies seem to be a thing of the past, but the gelada is being nudged out by agriculture and even actively shot at by farmers.

The African Wildlife Foundation is looking at ways to encourage sustainable land-use planning in the area, as well as alternative incomes for local communities. This can also help other local species, like its endangered dinner mate the Ethiopian wolf.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Bergman, Thore, and Beehner, Jacinta C. 2009. “Chest color and social status in male geladas (Theropithecus gelada)“. International Journal of Primatology  30(6):791-806.

Gelada“. No date. African Wildlife Foundation.

Gelada“. No date. BBC One.

Gelada“. No date. National Geographic.

Holmes, Bob. 2015. “Monkeys’ cosy alliance with wolves looks like domestication“. New Scientist.

Theropithecus gelada“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


Featured image credit: “Male gelada baboon (Heropithecus gelada)” by jez_bennett