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What skin color are monkeys?

What skin color are monkeys?

Monkeys come in a variety of skin colors, ranging from black to brown to white. A monkey’s skin color is determined by the amount of melanin pigment present. Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes and serves to protect the skin from UV radiation. More melanin results in darker skin, while less melanin leads to lighter skin. The skin color of different monkey species has adapted over time to suit their natural habitats.

Common Monkey Skin Colors

Here are some of the most common skin colors seen in monkeys:

Black Black skin is common in monkeys that live in tropical forests, like mandrills, black crested mangabeys, and black snub-nosed monkeys. The dark coloration helps them blend into the shady forest environment.
Brown Shades of brown are very common among monkeys. Brown allows them to blend in with tree trunks and dirt. Examples include rhesus macaques, patas monkeys, and squirrel monkeys.
Tan Some monkeys have tan or olive skin, like baboons and vervet monkeys. This helps camouflage them in savanna landscapes.
Pink A few monkey species have very pale skin, almost pinkish. This includes lion tailed macaques and some crested macaques. It may help regulate body temperature.
Multicolored Some monkeys feature patches of skin in different colors, like the mandrill which has red, blue, and purple facial skin.

The skin color of an individual monkey may also vary based on factors like age, diet, and sun exposure. Newborn monkeys often have lighter skin that darkens as they mature.

What Causes Dark and Light Skin in Monkeys?

As mentioned earlier, the main factor that determines a monkey’s skin color is the amount and distribution of melanin pigment in their skin. Here’s a more in-depth look at what controls melanin production:


Melanocytes are specialized skin cells located in the basal layer of the epidermis. They produce melanin within small intracellular packets called melanosomes.


There are two types of melanin:

  • Eumelanin: A brown-black pigment that protect skin from UV radiation.
  • Pheomelanin: A red-yellow pigment.

The mixture and ratio of these two melanins determines the overall skin color. Higher levels of eumelanin result in darker skin.

Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone

Melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH) is a peptide hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. It binds to and activates receptors on melanocytes, triggering increased production and release of melanin.


Genes regulate the complex process of melanin synthesis and distribution. Populations that evolved in sunny climates tend to have more genetic variants leading to darker skin.

UV Radiation

Exposure to UV rays from the sun stimulates melanocytes to ramp up melanin output. This leads to increased pigmentation and darker skin.

Natural Selection

Over the course of evolution, natural selection favored darker skin in monkeys living in tropical areas with more intense sunlight. This conferred a survival advantage by preventing sun damage and skin cancer. Lighter skin prevailed in monkeys from temperate regions to allow UV rays to penetrate and boost vitamin D production.

Monkey Species With Dark Skin

Here are some monkey species that feature predominantly dark black or brown skin:


Mandrills are found in the tropical rainforests of central Africa. Both male and female mandrills have dark brown or black skin covering most of their body. Their hairless faces are even more vividly colored with stripes of red, blue, and purple.


The drill is closely related to mandrills and occupies the same forest habitat. Drills have olive brown or black skin on the body, tail, and limbs. Their facial skin is pinkish gray with prominent red nostrils and lips.


Mangabeys include over a dozen species found throughout the forests and woodlands of Africa. Most have fur ranging from gray to brown or black. Their dark skin is apparent on the eyelids, ears, hands, feet, and tails.


The dozens of langur species inhabiting Asia are born with pale pink skin that gradually turns black as they mature. As adults, their dark skin is conspicuous on the face, hands, and feet. Some also have black skin on the rump, often framed with white fur.

Snub-nosed Monkeys

Asian snub-nosed monkeys have inky black skin and fur adapted to their cold, high-altitude forest habitat. The exposed skin on their nose, lips, and eyes appears especially dark and wrinkled against their pale blue faces.

Monkey Species With Light Skin

Some monkeys native to temperate or high elevation environments have lighter skin with less melanin:

Japanese Macaque

The Japanese macaque has light pinkish skin, especially apparent on its face, ears, fingers, and toes. This allows its skin to absorb more warmth and sunlight in the cooler climates it inhabits.

Ruffed Lemurs

These lemurs native to Madagascar have gray or black fur but conspicuous white or pale pink skin on the face, ears, hands, and feet. Their skin lacks melanin to prevent frostbite in chilly weather.

Golden Snub-nosed Monkey

This endangered Chinese monkey has a pale pink face surrounded by luxurious golden fur. Its skin turns darker pink during cold weather to absorb heat.

Proboscis Monkey

The peculiar looking proboscis monkey of Borneo has pinkish skin on its large nose and bloated belly. The bare skin helps regulate body temperature.

Vervet Monkey

Newborn vervet monkeys are born with pink skin that gradually darkens to pale tan as adults. Sparsely furred areas like the face and rump retain a fleshy pink color.

How Skin Color Varies Between Monkey Species

Monkey species have adapted to have skin colors suited to their natural habitat. Here are some key examples:

  • Forest-dwelling monkeys are often black to blend into shady jungle environments.
  • Savanna monkeys tend to be tan or olive colored as camouflage against dirt and vegetation.
  • Mountain monkeys have pale skin to limit frostbite and allow UV absorption.
  • Desert monkeys may have lighter skin to reflect heat and solar radiation.
  • Juvenile monkey skin is lighter to facilitate vitamin D production for growth.
  • Skin on monkey faces, rumps, and other exposed areas lacks melanin to signal emotions.
  • Multicolored faces help some species communicate social status and mood.

So while a monkey’s genetics strongly influence its skin color, external factors like habitat and climate also play an important role. Skin color in monkeys evolves over time to maximize reproductive success in their ecological niche.


In summary, monkeys display a rainbow of skin colors ranging from pink to tan to black. Skin color is primarily determined by melanin content, with darker skin resulting from more melanin production. Darker skin protects against sun damage but lighter skin allows for vitamin D synthesis. Different monkey species have adapted skin color over time to best match their native environment and aid in communication and thermoregulation. So while genetics are important, habitat is also a key factor driving the evolution of skin color in monkeys.