Barbary Macaques (Macaca sylvanus) Could Recolonize Southern Europe

Periodically, I peruse the abstracts of Quaternary Science Review and look for potential blog topics.  Alas, no recent issues include papers covering the region of my focus–southeastern North America.  However, a recent special issue dedicated to the career of a retiring paleontologist, Alan Turner, was full of fascinating papers about vertebrate paleontology.  (Normally, QSR publishes just an occasional vertebrate paleontology paper.)  One in particular grabbed my attention because it was about an animal I didn’t realize was part of Pleistocene Europe’s fauna–the Barbary macaque.

Barbary macaques.  They are an adaptable animal living in groups of about 30.  They feed upon plant matter and insects–items found in abundance in most temperate habitats.

Barbary macaques originally evolved in Africa about 5 million years ago, and like hominids, they eventually colonized Eurasia.  All Asiatic macaque species are descended from the Barbary macaques that left Africa millions of years ago.  Barbary macaques lived as far north as the British Isles and Germany during especially warm interglacials but became extirpated in Europe during the severest phases of Ice Ages.  They shared the landscape with hippos, narrow-nosed rhinos, straight-tusked elephants, cave bears, leopards, and hyenas.  This cavalcade of animals disappeared from Europe between 34,000 BP-24,000 BP when the landscape was transformed from mostly forests and woodlands to grassy mammoth steppe.  Unlike in North America, there was no thermal enclave where animals could have retreated.  In North America the land mass of Florida, the south Atlantic coastal plain, and the Gulf Coast expanded due to the regression of the ocean, and this provided refuge during Ice Ages for organisms requiring warmer climates.  Genetic studies suggest Ice Age ecological conditions became so unfavorable for Barbary macaques that they became isolated into 2 refugial populations in North Africa.  Following the end of the Ice Age, these populations were able to recolonize lost ground thanks to the improving climate, and they re-united 5000 years ago.  But when the Romans conquered Carthage 2100 years ago, they destroyed extensive areas of North African forests.  This habitat change re-isolated the macaques into fragmented refugial populations again. Climatic and topographical  models suggest  southern Europe could provide habitat for populations of Barbary macaques today.  Human development is probably standing in the way of macaque recolonization of this region.

locator map of England

Map of Europe and North Africa.  Extant populations of Barbary macaques occur in Morocco, Algeria, and Gibraltar.  Climatic models suggest Barbary macaques could survive in southern Europe.  If the climate continues to get warmer, they could potentially recolonize Europe as far north as Germany, as they did during the last interglacial.

There is a population of Barbary macaques living on the island of Gibraltar today.  They are not a remnant population of Pleistocene European macaques.  Instead, sailors brought them here between 711 AD-1492 AD.


Elton, Sarah; and Hannah O’Regan

“Macaques at the Margins: the Biogeography and Extinction of Macaca sylvanus in Europe”

Quaternary Science Review 96 (15) July 2014

Modolo, Lara; Walter Salzburger, and Robert Martin

“Phylogeography of Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus) and the Origin of the Gibraltar Colony”

PNAS 102 (22) 2004

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