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Tourists risk getting bit when they mistake monkey aggression for affection

"When on site in Morocco, I often heard tourists in saying that the monkey seemed to blow them a kiss when they actually displayed a threatening face," researcher Laëtitia Maréchal said.

By Brooks Hays
Tourists risk getting bit when they mistake monkey aggression for affection
New research suggests tourists aren't very good at determining whether macaques are acting friendly or aggressive. Photo by Alexander Mazurkevich/Shutterstock

June 1 (UPI) -- New research suggests humans aren't all that great at reading the facial cues of monkeys. Misinterpreting the emotional state of monkeys, researchers argue, increases the risk of being bitten.

In many places around the world, monkey-human interactions are unavoidable. Many tourists visit places for the express purpose of interacting with monkeys. But intimate encounters can sometimes end in injury.

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To see how wildlife officials might improve the safety of humans and monkeys, researchers at the University of Lincoln in England analyzed educational signage in places were monkey-human interactions are common.

Scientists found the problem may not be the information on the signs, but the ability of people to put their newly acquired knowledge into practice.

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"There is a growing interest in wildlife tourism, and in particular primate tourism," Laëtitia Maréchal, a psychologist at the University of Lincoln, said in a news release. "People travel to encounter wild animals, many of them attempting to closely interact with monkeys, even though this is often prohibited. However, serious concerns have been raised related to the safety of the tourists interacting with wild animals."

Recent studies suggest monkey bites are the most common type of animal injury in Southeast Asia after dog bites. Bites are the most common way diseases are transmitted between humans and animals.

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Researchers quizzed study participants on the emotional state of macaques communicated by aggressive, distressed, friendly and neutral faces using 2D illustrations and video footage.

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The testing proved participants without macaque experience often misinterpret the emotions communicated by the different faces. Even monkey experts made a few mistakes. Scientists shared the results of their tests in the journal PeerJ.

The differences between a threatening face, lips protruded and teeth showing, and a friendly face, mouth half open with tongue and lip smacking, are relatively minor.

"When on site in Morocco, I often heard tourists in saying that the monkey seemed to blow them a kiss when they actually displayed a threatening face," Maréchal said.

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Researchers believe better educating tourists about the emotional cues of monkey faces could prevent dangerous interactions.

"If we can educate people, and prevent monkey bites, we can not only reduce the risk of disease infection, we can improve on the tourism experience," Maréchal said. "These findings are highly relevant to the general public and any professional in wildlife tourism, where wild animals can interact with the general public."

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