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Species: M. mulatta
Subspecies: M. m. brevicauda, M. m. lasiota, M. m. mulatta, M. m. sanctijohannis, M. m. vestita, M. m. villosa
Other names: rhesus monkey; macaque rhésus (French); mono resus (Spanish); rehesusapa or rhesusmakak (Swedish); M. m. lasiota: west Chinese rhesus macaque; M. m. sanctijohannis: insular Chinese rhesus macaque or south Chinese rhesus macaque; M. m. vestita: Tibetan rhesus macaque
Total population: Unknown
Regions: China, India, Bhutan, Laos, Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan, Afghanistan
Gestation: 5.5 months (164 days)
Height: 531.8 mm (M), 468.8 mm (F)
Weight: 7.7 kg (M), 5.34 kg (F)
One of 22 or 23 species of macaques (sources differ), rhesus macaques are divided according to country of origin, either Chinese-derived or Indian-derived. . Chinese-derived rhesus macaques include subspecies M. m. vestita, M. m. lasiota, M. m. sanctijohannis, and M. m. brevicauda. Indian-derived rhesus macaques are found in other countries besides India, but are still informally referred to as Indian-derived and include M. m. mulatta and M. m. villosa (Smith & McDonough 2005). In breeding colonies at research centers in the United States, rhesus macaques have sometimes been bred separately according to their “country” of derivation but in other cases, crossbreeding has occurred, leading to some confusion about the taxonomic separation of individuals used in research (Smith & McDonough 2005).
Rhesus macaques, both Chinese- and Indian-derived, range in color from dusty brown to auburn with little to no fur found on their reddish-pink faces. Their rumps are the same color as their faces and they have medium-length tails that average between 207.6 and 228.9 mm (8.17 and 9.01 in) (Fooden 2000). Males and females are sexually dimorphic, like other species of macaques, and males measure, on average, 531.8 mm (1.74 ft) and weigh, on average, 7.70 kg (17.0 lb) while females have an average height of 468.8 mm (1.54 ft) and an average weight of 5.34 kg (11.8 lb) (Fooden 2000; Singh & Sinha 2004). They are quadrupedal and, depending on the type of habitat in which they are found, can be predominantly arboreal or predominantly terrestrial (Seth et al. 2001). Rhesus macaques are also skilled swimmers and have been observed crossing bodies of water up to one kilometer (.621 mi) wide. When they are seen in the water they are usually searching for food, escaping from danger, regulating their body temperature, or playing. Swimming is a skill seen in infants as young as two days old (Fooden 2000).
CURRENT RANGE MAPS (IUCN REDLIST):
The only primates with a broader geographic distribution than rhesus macaques are humans (Southwick et al. 1996). Rhesus macaques are found ubiquitously throughout mainland Asia; from Afghanistan to India and Thailand to southern China (Rowe 1996; Smith & McDonough 2005). M. m. vestita, M. m. lasiota, and M. m. sanctijohannis are found in western, central, and eastern China, respectively (Groves 2001; Smith & McDonough 2005). Another Chinese species of rhesus macaque, M. m. brevicauda, is found on Hainan Island, off the southwest coast of China. The Indian-derived rhesus macaques are separated by region with M. m. villosa found in the Kashmir and Punjab region of India (the northern part of the country), Pakistan, and Afghanistan and M. m. mulatta found in India, Bhutan, Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam (Groves 2001; Smith & McDonough 2005). It is likely that there will be additional subspecies added and M. m. mulatta will be reclassified into several more distinct subspecies based on genetic and morphological differences (Groves 2001).
A free-ranging colony of rhesus macaques was established in 1938 on an island in the Caribbean. Introduced to Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico, rhesus macaques have been studied under semi-natural conditions for almost 70 years and have provided an unprecedented resource for information about behavior, population demography, and long-term histories of individuals’ social and physical development (Rawlins & Kessler 1986a). Furthermore, with the establishment of this colony of free-ranging macaques came the birth of a new field of study, sociobiology, pioneered by Stuart Altmann who observed rhesus monkeys on Cayo Santiago and worked with notable sociobiologist E.O. Wilson (Bercovitch pers. comm.).
In September 2017 , Hurricane Maria devastated much of Puerto Rico, including Cayo Santiago. Research on the monkeys afterward revealed much about the animals’ resilience and social adaptations to overcome the challenges wrought by the storm. (Testard et al, Current Biology, June 7, 2021)
Feral populations of rhesus monkeys exist throughout the world. In central Florida, for example, a population of rhesus macaques released into the forests to increase tourism in the 1930s and ’40s grew exponentially from 12 animals to more than 1,000 over the next 50 years. Despite efforts to cull and plans to control breeding, the animals have been viewed by wildlife managers as an invasive species, as they threaten native populations of birds and other wildlife. (Anderson et al, Journal of Wildlife Management. 26 Oct 2018)
Rhesus macaques are the most studied nonhuman primate, both in the field and in laboratory settings, though most of the field research comes from rhesus macaques in India (Richard et al. 1989). One of the notable early field researchers of rhesus monkeys is Charles Southwick, who began surveying them in 1959 (Seth 2000). Donald Lindburg has been another force in rhesus macaque studies, assessing the abundance of rhesus in India as well as reporting declines in the population which was important at the time of their export (Seth 2000; Smith & McDonough 2005).
Because they are found in such a broad geographic area, it is difficult to concisely summarize the types of habitats rhesus macaques populate. In the most general terms, they are found in both tropical and temperate habitats including semidesert, dry deciduous, mixed deciduous and bamboo, and temperate forests as well as in tropical forests and mangrove swamps, usually at elevations from sea level to 2000 m (6561 ft), but they have been seen at elevations up to 4000 m (13,123 ft) in China and northeastern India (Seth & Seth 1986; Fooden 2000; Srivastava & Mohnot 2001). Rhesus macaques are also found in areas close to humans in urban settings or near cultivated fields (Southwick et al. 1996).
In the northernmost part of their range, the rhesus of the Taihang Mountains in China live in a secondary deciduous forest at elevations between 300 and 1200 m (984 and 3937 ft) with a temperate climate and cold, snowy winters similar to the climate of the central, Midwestern United States (Qu et al. 1993). In this region, there are hot, rainy, and humid summers with severely cold and dry winters, and temperatures ranging between -20° C (-4° F) and 40° C (104° F) during the year. Annual rainfall averages 641 mm (2.10 ft), with the rainiest period lasting from June to August (Qu et al. 1993). This is similar to the climate of the region of Pakistan where they are found, but the habitat in Pakistan is dominated by mixed evergreen and deciduous forests that are highly disturbed (Goldstein & Richard 1989). In their tropical range in China, and similarly in Burma, Laos and Thailand, the rainy season lasts from May to October with annual rainfall averaging 1575 mm (5.17 ft). Temperature is more stable in India and northern China throughout the year, ranging between 22° C (72° F) and 28° C (82° F). The habitat includes primary and secondary tropical and dry evergreen forests and bamboo forests (Jiang et al. 1991; Southwick et al. 1996; Borries et al. 2002).
In India, rhesus macaques are found in flat, cultivated areas, where agricultural fields dominate the landscape and in the plains, foothills and mountainous regions where habitat includes cultivated fields, tropical forests and dry, deciduous forests. Average annual rainfall ranges between 420 and 2150 mm (1.38 and 7.05 ft), depending on elevation, and annual range in temperature is between -4° C (25° F) and 48° C (118° F) (Seth & Seth 1986). During the hottest parts of the year, groups in the Himalayan region of India migrate to higher elevations where cooler temperatures persist throughout the summer months (Seth et al. 2001). In urban areas of India, they are found on roadsides, canal banks, in railway stations, villages, towns, and temples (Richard et al. 1989). It is estimated that 48.5% of rhesus macaques in northern India live in villages, towns, cities, temples and railway stations where they are in close and frequent contact with people at all times. About 37.1% of the population lives with some human contact on roadsides and canal banks and only 14.4% of the rhesus macaques in the northern part of the country live in isolation from humans and do not rely on them at all for food (Southwick & Siddiqi 1994).
Rhesus macaques are exceptionally adapted to coexisting with humans and thrive near human settlement, in both urban and agricultural areas. It is impossible to characterize their “natural” diet without considering the impact of humans. Because they are found in higher densities in areas of human disturbance compared to forests, in some areas rhesus macaques derive, both directly and indirectly, a substantial part of their diet from human activities (Richard et al. 1989). In fact, up to 93% of their diet can be from human sources, either from direct handouts or from agricultural sources (Southwick & Siddiqi 1994). Rhesus macaques are omnivores and feed on a wide array of plant and invertebrate products. By raiding crops, they have access to a huge variety of cultivated fruits and vegetables, and in highly urban areas, they forage by picking through garbage (Goldstein & Richard 1989; Richard et al. 1989). Throughout their range and especially in India, they inhabit temples and are fed as a form of worship by local people (Wolfe 2002). Some of the most common foods given to rhesus macaques in temples include bread, bananas, peanuts, seeds, other fruits and vegetables, and assorted miscellaneous foods like ice cream and fried bread (Wolfe 1992). In less human-influenced areas, they focus on fruits, flowers, leaves, seeds, gums, buds, grass, clover, roots, bark, and they supplement their diet with termites, grasshoppers, ants, beetles, and mushrooms. Rhesus macaques also eat bird eggs, shellfish, and fish (Fooden 2000). During the driest parts of the year, they may even eat the dirt from termite mounds (Lindburg 1971). On Cayo Santiago, the rhesus macaques also consume dirt possibly because the mineral composition of the soil on the island is similar to pharmaceuticals used in humans to treat upset stomach. The Cayo rhesus may be eating dirt to relieve the discomfort associated with intestinal parasites (Knezevich 1998). At higher elevations, where seasonal snowfall restricts food sources, rhesus macaques are restricted to eating the leaves of evergreen trees and bark as well as a few berries that grow in winter. During the winter months at high elevations, rhesus macaques suffer from food and climate stress and have higher levels of mortality if the cold weather lasts too long (Qu et al. 1993).
Home range size and day range length are dependent on habitat in rhesus macaques. Temple, village, and urban rhesus macaques have small home ranges between .01 and 3.0 km² (.004 and 1.16 mi²) in size because they derive almost all of their food from human visitors leaving offerings, crop raiding, or opportunistic foraging on human byproducts (Seth & Seth 1986). The day ranges for these urbanized areas are variable but the average is about 1.15 km (.715 mi) (Fooden 2000). In more forested areas of India, home range size can be up to 15 km² (5.79 mi²), but rhesus monkeys only move, on average, 1428 m (.887 mi) per day (Lindburg 1971). In China, home ranges vary in size from .1 to .72 km² (.039 to .278 mi²) near villages, while in mountainous areas, home ranges are much larger and span between 11 and 22 km² (4.25 and 8.49 mi²) but average 16 km² (6.18 mi²) (Southwick et al. 1996). Daily path lengths in this environment range from 1050 to 3500 m (.652 to 2.17 mi) (Makwana 1978).
Both climate and season affect the timing of the onset of daily activities as well as the type of activities undertaken. In the warmest times of the year, rhesus macaques spend more time resting than during more temperate months (Seth & Seth 1986; Seth 2000). Home ranges of rhesus macaques overlap and groups have high frequencies of intergroup contact, which is characterized by generally mild social interactions (Melnick et al. 1984). Across all habitat types, feeding and resting are the major activities of the rhesus macaques’ day and they spend the rest of their time traveling, grooming, playing, and other activities (Seth & Seth 1986).
Potential predators of rhesus macaques include raptors, dogs, weasels, leopards, tigers, sharks, crocodiles, and snakes (Fooden 2000).
Because of their anatomical and physiological closeness to humans, the relative ease at which they can be maintained and bred in captivity, and the available supply from India, rhesus macaques have long been the nonhuman primate of choice on which to conduct research on human and animal health-related topics (Mitruka 1976, Cauvin et al 2015). In recent years, there has been a shortage of rhesus macaques for biomedical research in the United States due to a combination of factors. These include China shutting down exports of macaques bred specifically for research, an insufficient reserve of monkeys in the US, and the COVID-19 pandemic, with more research needed on SARS-C0V-2 variants, long COVID, vaccines and treatments. The supply of animals cannot keep up with the demand for biomedical research studies on COVID and other diseases. (In-depth story by Jackie Flynn Mogensen for Mother Jones Magazine, June 23, 2022, interviewing National Primate Research Centers Directors and staff.)
Some of the benefits to human health made possible through the use of rhesus macaques include: development of the rabies, smallpox, and polio vaccines, discovery of the Rh factor in blood, creation of drugs and vaccine candidates to manage HIV/AIDS, the development of vaccines for COVID-19, advances in treating reproduction and development disorders, understanding the beneficial effects of calorie restriction and aging, the first successful derivation and culture of nonhuman primate embryonic stem cells – which led directly to human ES cell culture and the current era of pluripotent stem cell research, treatments for autoimmune disorders, treatments for preventing organ transplant rejection, research advances for better treatments for Parkinson’s disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, lung disease, depression and more. (Friedman et al 2017; Lewis et al 2015, National Primate Research Centers, 2021).
Content last modified: July 29, 2022.
Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 July 20. Primate Factsheets: Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) Taxonomy, Morphology, & Ecology.
For individual primate species conservation status, please search the IUCN Red List.
Also search the current scientific literature for primate conservation status (overall as well as for individual species), and visit CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
Conservation information last updated in 2005 follows, for comparison:
The Indian population of rhesus macaques was massively impacted by the widespread export for use in biomedical research in the mid-20 th century. By the time their international export began to be regulated in 1977, the Indian population was reduced by 90% (Malik 1992). Countries that had demanded these monkeys for use in research, including the United States, established self-sustaining breeding colonies and curbed the demand for wild-born animals resulting in a rebound in the Indian population (Southwick & Siddiqi 2001). In China, rhesus macaques are widespread and thriving (Zhang 1998).
CONSERVATION THREATS & POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS
Threat: Human-Induced Habitat Loss and Degradation
Problems of habitat destruction do not seem to affect rhesus macaques like other primates; they are well adapted to life near humans and can thrive in highly disturbed environments. Because of the cessation of export and the rhesus macaque’s adaptability to human-disturbed environments, the Indian population is increasing (Rao 2003). This increase may not necessarily be positive because in areas where rhesus macaques are in contact with humans they are menaces: threatening or biting children and the elderly, stealing food from people, raiding crops and damaging property leading to decreased tolerance and persecution of rhesus macaques in some areas (Imam et al. 2002; Wolfe 2002; Rao 2003). This is one rare case where the destruction of habitat and replacement with agricultural land has led to an increase in the number of primates, but at a serious social cost. These problems will only be exacerbated if habitat destruction does not stop and will likely force government control measures, like trapping and relocation, to decrease the population for the health and safety of humans in India (Imam et al. 2002; Rao 2003). In Bangladesh, forest dwelling rhesus macaques are threatened because of cattle grazing, illicit timber and fuelwood harvesting, and settlement pressure. The forests in which they are found are not continuous or undisturbed (Sazedul Islam & Zahirul Islam 2001).
The root cause of this conflict between humans and rhesus macaques is the eradication of natural habitat, forcing monkeys into proximity with humans. Though they excel in human-disturbed environments, rhesus macaques living in forested areas are usually healthier, eating a better diet, and in overall better condition than urban macaques (Lindburg 1971). Restoration of their natural habitat in densely populated areas may decrease conflict, but given that they will likely move into areas where humans make food readily available, this may not be a permanent solution. In the long term, management will be necessary to conserve healthy populations of rhesus macaques and prevent persecution by humans from being a threat to their survival (Muroyama & Eudey 2004). Translocation of large numbers of monkeys may be one management option to remove rhesus macaques dependent on human sources of food. In one area of significant human-rhesus macaque conflict, about 600 macaques were captured and successfully relocated to forested areas nearby (Imam et al. 2002).
In countries like Bangladesh, where forest loss is occurring at a rapid rate, some measures that may influence the survival of rhesus macaques in forest settings include replanting deforested areas, involving local people in conservation activities such as tree planting and providing income through these activities, and establishing plantations specifically for fuelwood and timber needs that can be sustainably harvested (Sazedul Islam & Zahirul Islam 2001).
Threat: Harvesting (hunting/gathering)
Rhesus macaques were once seriously threatened by the rate of capture and export for use in biomedical research. In the 1960s, often 50,000 juvenile rhesus macaques were trapped and shipped from India per year, crippling the population growth of rhesus in India (Southwick & Siddiqi 2001). In 1978, a total ban on rhesus export was the first step in reestablishing the population, and the numbers in India have more than doubled since the 1970s (Southwick & Siddiqi 2001). There are still some rhesus macaques trapped and used for reasearch within India, but the effect of the population is negligible compared to previous levels of usage (Southwick & Siddiqi 1994). Chinese rhesus macaques are not frequently subject to harvesting for biomedical research within China because of the 23 established primate captive breeding facilities in that country (Fan & Song 2003).
In orthodox Hindu tradition, monkeys are sacred animals to be revered and protected, but as humans and animals begin to compete for similar resources or monkeys become nuisances, causing not only property damage, but also injury to humans, the traditional bond is degraded (Imam et al. 2002; Wolfe 2002). In some areas of India, rhesus macaques are subjected to stoning, trapping, and shooting because they are such pervasive, destructive pests. Over 95% of the local people in one region of India felt harassed by the rhesus macaques either because of bites, stealing of household items, or other reasons (Imam et al. 2002). Though their populations continue to expand, the deterioration of traditional beliefs that leads to their persecution could have an effect on rhesus macaque conservation in the future. If the conservation ethic connected to deifying rhesus macaques is lost, it will be difficult to rekindle in the future if the population stops growing or decreases (Imam et al. 2002).
Mitigating human-rhesus conflict is necessary to prevent the change in attitudes towards rhesus macaques that could lead to further persecution and population decline. Translocating particularly problematic rhesus monkeys or entire groups has been successful, but is not a widespread option because there simply are not enough suitable forest patches in which large numbers of rhesus can live (Imam et al. 2002). Perhaps innovative engineering could lead to monkey-proof containers in which people can store household items and food and prevent local rhesus from raiding their kitchens. Deterrent fencing or other protective measures could also be established around gardens and agricultural crops to prevent rhesus macaques from crop raiding. On the other hand, Bercovitch and Berman (1993) found that on Cayo Santiago, mothers who had sons had a delay in the next reproduction, and therefore there is a higher cost in producing males, not females. Decreasing opportunities for conflict between local humans and rhesus macaques will lead to maintained tolerance of these monkeys that have nowhere to retreat from human encroachment.
LINKS TO MORE ABOUT CONSERVATION
- No current links for Macaca mulatta
- Links for all species
- 30 monkeys from Lele released in Shivapuri (Nepal Republica; January 24, 2010)
- Nepali wildlife body objects export of monkeys to U.S. (China View; February 17, 2009)
- Caged rhesus monkeys to be freed (The Independent, South Africa; May 12, 2004)
- Links for all species
ORGANIZATIONS INVOLVED IN Macaca mulatta CONSERVATION
- LVDI International
- Primarily Primates
- Bureau of Shennongjia Nature Reserve
- Community Conservation
- Frisky’s Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary Inc.
- Israeli Primate Sanctuary
- Animal Sanctuary of the United States-Wild Animal Orphanage
- Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand
- Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Inc.
Content last modified: July 20, 2005
Cite this page as:
Cawthon Lang KA. 2005 July 20. Primate Factsheets: Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) Conservation . . Accessed 2020 July 13.
The following references were used in the writing of this factsheet. To find current references for Macaca mulatta, search PrimateLit.
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Content last modified: July 20, 2005
Photo: Frans de Waal
Photo: Frans de Waal
Photo: Frans de Waal
Photo: Frans de Waal
Photo: Frans de Waal
Photo: Frans de Waal
Photo: Frans de Waal
Photo: Primates in Art & Illustration Collection
Primate Info Net (PIN) is maintained by the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WNPRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with countless grants and contributions from others over time. PIN is an ever-growing community effort: if you’d like to contribute, or have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.