A tinge of jealousy might creep in as Lincoln Park Zoo spectators — standing in the cold — watch Japanese monkeys lounge in a hot tub placed right in front of a viewing window at the zoo’s newest exhibit, which opened Wednesday.
“It’s definitely appealing,” said primatologist Stephen Ross.
A female named Ono was the first to take a dip in the steaming, 100-degree water, meant to replicate one of the natural hot springs they might encounter in Japan.
“Hopefully they will all get in. It’s not unusual to see a group in the water with their eyes closed, just lounging,” Ross said of the species, also known as Japanese Macaques or snow monkeys, which use the hot water to warm up.
The Regenstein Macaque Forest exhibit was part of roughly $16 million in capital improvements — which also included a train ride for children — which opened last year. While the snow monkey exhibit partially opened on Wednesday, the entire exhibit, including the research portion, is expected to open in May.
Three males, each weighing about 25 pounds, and five females, each about 15 pounds, were flown in from Japan in the fall. Each is about nine years old and considered a young adult.
Visitors might also catch the monkeys making snowballs.
“There’s a lot of accounts of Japanese monkeys making snowballs and carrying them around for seemingly no purpose . . . some as big as their heads,” said Ross — who quickly seemed to anticipate the next question.
“No. I haven’t seen them throw any snowballs, no,” Ross said.
Researchers built in touch screens the monkeys can approach to play games that will test their intelligence. The public can watch this interaction.
Webcams set up in the exhibit will also stream footage of the monkeys.
The monkeys live in hot and cold weather and should adapt just fine in Chicago, said Ross, who hopes they mate. On Wednesday, the creatures probed the perimeter of the exhibit, looking for a way out. The entire 7,000-square-foot enclosure is covered with a net.
Able to climb more than 30 feet into the air on rocks and trees, the monkeys are seeing some things for the first time, such as neighboring African wild dogs and adjacent street traffic.
“They perked their heads up at the sound of an ambulance,” Ross said. “I’ve been very surprised by how athletic they are . . . how quick they are and how far they can jump.”