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This Gibbon Knows Life's A Balancing Act

At the Monkeyland Sanctuary in South Africa, an 8-year-old white-handed gibbon walks the tightrope of a suspension bridge with admirable nerve and skill:

The gibbon, a female named Siam, was filmed in 2013 (though I first saw the clip this week) at the outdoor sanctuary that rescued her from a French zoo. There she encountered a situation totally new to her: How to get across this bridge? Off she hurtled, arms high in the air for balance.

Gibbons, native to Asia, are apes (not monkeys) — and in the wild live an almost entirely arboreal life; they brachiate rapidly through the trees in a set of arm-swinging motions. This clip reveals something about the anatomy of ape brachiation. Notice Siam's heavily muscled arms, used to swing powerfully through the forest canopy during locomotion and foraging.

Though capable of walking upright for brief periods, as Siam demonstrates here, these apes are bipedal with a bent-knee gait. (Only in humans is bipedalism accomplished with a locked knee.)

Besides the anatomy lesson, I like the video for another reason too: It's a visual metaphor of sorts for how many of us feel — perched precariously on the thin edge — when trying out a new skill. I take inspiration from this primate cousin of ours.


Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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