February 23, 2018
Spirit Animal ጭላዳ
- as seen by -Natalie Cash
Gelada, in Amharic: ጭላዳ, phonetically: č̣əlada
Dubbed the “bleeding-heart baboon,” geladas (Theropithecus gelada) are not actually baboons, but the last surviving members of their own genus. Native to the remote mountains of Ethiopia, geladas look like the offspring of an ape and a lion, with rich tawny to deep brown fur, dark faces and piercing amber eyes. Both sexes sport a patch of pinkish skin in the center of their chest that on the female turns bright red when it’s time to reproduce, hence the nickname.
Geladas are quite unusual in the primate world, not only for their enormous group sizes – more than 700 individuals can forage together at a time – but geladas are also the only nonhuman primate known to communicate in speech-like, varying rhythms while simultaneously employing complex facial movements. Sitting amid a troop of well over a hundred individuals of every age and size, it sounded as if I was hearing the birth of language right in front of me. I would catch myself glancing suddenly over my shoulder to confirm that another human had not arrived, then as more time passed, absentmindedly responding to their constant vocalizations. I sat among these geladas until dusk overtook the sky, and they fanned out towards their cliffside dwelling for the night safe from predators in this mountain realm. It was one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had with wildlife.
Outside of the Ethiopian Highlands, there are only a handful of places where you can find geladas. A good one is here at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Bronx Zoo Mammal Curator Dr. Colleen McCann conducted her doctoral studies on the species and continues to go to the field for behavioral-endocrinology research on geladas in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. This work helps her inform reproductive strategies for the population that I have the privilege of seeing every day. It is the animal I am most drawn to of all wild species, holding a very special place in my own beating heart.
To see and hear a gelada baboon troop in the wild, click here.