We've long thought macaques are adorable, but now we realize they're masters of self-care too

By Saryn Chorney
April 04, 2018 03:29 PM

The U.S. spa industry is a multi-billion dollar business catering to women (and men) who believe they deserve a little T.L.C. In some regions of the world, for instance the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavík, Iceland, people flock to hot springs to socialize, recharge and indulge in natural mud or algae masks in a setting of natural beauty — but this pampering experience doesn’t come cheap. This is where Japanese macaques, commonly referred to as “snow” monkeys, have it all over us humans: They do it for free, and for many of the same reasons as we do — especially for a little R&R.

According to Science Daily, a new study released by Primates, the official journal of the Japan Monkey Centre, the macaques of the country’s northern Nagano region soak in the natural steam baths in Jigokudani Monkey Park not only to warm their little bodies from the chilly winter weather, but also to destress for health-related reasons.

Japanese Macaque Monkies Visit Hot Springs
Credit: Koichi Kamoshida/Getty

We’ve long thought that snow monkeys are adorable, but now we realize they’re animal masters of self-care too. As it turns out, this group of monkeys is the only one in the world known to take hot spring baths. The behavior, which was only officially observed by people for the first time in 1963, began with a singular female monkey. She was viewed bathing in an outdoor hot spring belonging to a nearby hotel, and other monkeys soon followed her lead. (For hygienic reasons, the park has since built a hot spring exclusively for the monkeys.) Science Daily reports that by 2003, “one in every three females” bathed regularly in winter.

Monkey in snow monkey park, Nagano
Credit: Getty

Locals, tourists and even experts generally assumed that the blissful monkey bathers frequented the springs mainly to warm up during the cold, snowy winter months. However, in 2014, scientists from the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University, embarked on a study observing 12 female Japanese macaques and discovered another interesting reason for the behavior.

Japanese Macaque or Snow Monkey female and baby
Credit: Getty

The team watched the monkeys and collected the animals’ excrement, measuring a hormone called glucocorticoid. When stress levels are high, the concentration of the hormone increases. But the stress levels of this group of lady monkeys, age five to 24, was approximately 20 percent lower, on average, after soaking in the hot springs.

Snow monkey
Credit: Getty

Rafaela Takeshita, the lead researcher, says “This indicates that, as in humans, the hot spring has a stress-reducing effect in snow monkeys.”

Takeshita hopes to investigate the finding further, potentially using saliva and other samples as a way to detect if there are short-term stress level changes they can identify. “This unique habit of hot spring bathing by snow monkeys illustrates how behavioral flexibility can help counter cold-climate stress, with likely implications for reproduction and survival,” says Takeshita.

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Basically, the scientists think that this natural “spa treatment” could have additional health (and lifestyle?) benefits for the animals, such as an increase in fertility and/or longevity. Accordingly, the researchers plan to study the relationship between their bathing activities and their reproductive system, as well as the monkeys’ overall lifespan, in the future.

Ah, Calgon. Take me away …. to Jigokudani Monkey Park!