Life: Primates - Episode 10 Synopsis

Intelligence and adaptability allow primates to tackle the many challenges of life, and this is what makes our closest relatives so successful. This resourcefulness has enabled primates to conquer an incredible diversity of habitat.

Hamadryas baboons live on the open plains of Ethiopia in groups up to 400 strong. Strength in numbers gives them some protection from potential predators. But, should their path cross with other baboon troops, it can lead to all-out battle, as males try to steal females from one another, and even settle old scores.

Japanese macaques are the most northerly-dwelling primates and they experience completely different challenges. Some beat the freezing conditions by having access to a thermal spa in the middle of winter. But this privilege is only for those born of the right female bloodline.

For western lowland gorillas, it’s the male silverback that leads his family group in the rich forests of the Congo basin. He advertises his status to all with a powerful chest-beating display.

Most primates are forest dwellers, and one of the strangest is the tarsier – the only purely carnivorous primate. As it hunts for insects the tarsier leaps from tree to tree in the dead of night, using its huge forward-facing eyes to safely judge each jump.

Good communication is essential for success in primate society.

Phayre’s leaf monkeys have bright orange babies to alert other group members that they need looking after.

Ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar use their sense of smell for seduction, wafting their perfumed tails at each.

But the most important type of communication is the passing on of knowledge.

Sumatran orang-utan mothers spend up to nine years teaching their infants about the complex forest world about them – what to eat, where to travel safely, how to build a nest and even how to deal with the regular downpours!

Primates have found some extraordinary ways to improvise, especially dealing with challenges beyond their physical means. The biggest breakthrough in primate evolution has been the ability to use tools to get food.

Clams are normally too strong for white-faced capuchins in Costa Rica to open with their hands and teeth. So these intelligent monkeys repeatedly hammer them to weaken the clam’s muscle.

A close relative of theirs in Brazil has learned how to use hammer stones to smash open palm nuts.

And nowhere is the imaginative use of tools more vividly displayed than by the chimpanzees in the forests of Guinea, West Africa. They have learned to dip for ants, pound and soften palm hearts using leaf stalks and to hammer nuts with precision and efficiency. So valuable are their tools, they will even share them with one another.

Ninety Nine Per Cent
As the majority of primates live in tropical forest and spend a lot of time up in the trees – or concealed behind leaves – filming them is a tough challenge.

The Life team had to use all their primate intelligence, forward-thinking, field craft and hand-eye co-ordination to succeed.

Camerawoman Justine Evans, primatologist Tatyana Humle and their field assistants filmed chimpanzees using tools in the forests of Guinea, West Africa. It took a month of intense effort for Justine to capture some unforgettable behaviour, and earn the trust of our closest living relatives.

Producer: Patrick Morris.

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