Monkey Talk’s Brian Gomilla witnessed a confrontation between a fully-grown Horseshoe Whipsnake, seen meandering through the bushes of the Upper Rock nature reserve, and an infant-carrying female macaque. Whilst Horseshoe Whipsnakes of this size (1.5m) will regularly take rodents, small birds and lizards, they do not pose a threat to macaques. Brian notes, however, that primates do appear to share our innate fear of snakes.

Speaking to us after the encounter, Brian, an expert on primates, and keen defender of the Barbary Macaques, observed the female’s alarm call, insisting that, ‘there were several other macaques around 50 to 100m further down the road all of which had to pass the snake on the way up to Spur Battery. Several minutes after the original alarm call being raised, the rest of the macaques made their way up one by one. Whilst some walked past the snake seemingly oblivious to it, others, at least two juveniles, independently reacted to the snake, or rather, the earlier alarm call. I say this because the macaques did not respond to any physical movement from the snake nor any rustling of the bushes. So much so, that judging from their inability to focus on the specific branch on which the snake was perched, if I would have to make an educated guess, I would say they did not see the snake themselves. And yet they were reacting to it as a direct result of the alarm call raised by the female earlier.’

He further commented on the alarm call, claiming that it must have been specific to the threat, ‘random high pitched vocalisation would have left the other macaques none the wiser as to what the actual threat was. Several studies have demonstrated that non-human primate vocalisation units have both semantics i.e. carry meaning and that these vocalisation units can be used in different grammatically-correct combinations referred to as syntax to convey specific information (Arnold & Zuberbühler 2006).

In essence, these are the building blocks upon which human language is based.’