Amigos de los Monos

Los Monos de Punta Burica

Photo by Alison Mann

Species Highlight: Panamanian Red Spider Monkey

The Panamanian red spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi panamensis) is the flagship species for Amigos de los Monos. These spider monkeys live in the forests of Rio Coco and Rio Cana Blanca, neighboring river valleys south of Punta Banco in the indigenous reserve. The locals estimate that there are thirty monkeys left, making them extremely vulnerable to extirpation.

The conservation status of all animals is directly related to their natural history and behavior. In the case of spider monkeys, their diet of fruit increases their vulnerability in two ways. First, because they range over great distances to find enough fruit, spider monkeys' muscles are well-developed, making them a preferred source of wild meat, and their numbers have declined dramatically in the last thirty years as a result of hunting. Second, the fruit trees that spider monkeys depend on occur at low densitities, and the monkeys' home range is large in order to acquire adequate food. Consequently, spider monkeys are dependent on large tracts of undisturbed primary rainforest and are very sensitive to changes in habitat. The settlement of Punta Burica has, in the last forty years, dramatically altered the habitat of the spider monkeys, fragmenting their original habitat with cow pasture and human settlements.

In order to protect the remaining spider monkeys, there must be enforcement of the anti-hunting laws, the current habitat must be protected, and corridors must be established to improve forest connectivity. Finally, the multicultural communities of northern Punta Burica must work collaboratively. This is particularly important in light of the recent sightings of spider monkeys in the forests of Punta Banco outside of the indigenous reserve.

Monkey Fact Sheet  

ENDANGERED
 
Ateles geoffroyi
English: Panamanian red spider monkey
Spanish: mono araña, mono colorado
Ngäbere:  münchi

Estimated Costa Rican population (Ateles geoffroyi):

  • 1995: 26,000
  • 2007: 7,225
  • Decline: 72%

Distinguishing characteristics: 

  • In addition to their long limbs, spider monkeys have prehensile tails that serve as a fifth limb when eating and traveling.
  • The hands of spider monkeys form a hook when relaxed and are also lacking thumbs.  These are adaptations for brachiating, the swinging motion they use to travel from tree to tree.
  • Females have an elongated clitoris, which easily distinguish them from the males, whose genitals are hidden from view.

Distribution:  Panama through central western Costa Rica

Life History:

  • Life span: up to 27 years
  • Gestation:  230 days
  • Infant dependency:  2 years
  • Sexually maturity:  6 years
  • Reproduction rate: 1 birth every 3 years
  • Dispersion: females leave natal group upon sexual maturity

Diet:  Frugivores, eating primarily ripe fruit, in addition to seeds, flowers, leaves, bark and honey

Habitat: Upper canopy in primary rainforests

Home range: 25-98 ha

Social Structure: 

  • Fission-fusion structure where groups as large as 40 break into smaller subgroups of 2-8 individuals.  It is thought that this social structure has evolved to reduce feeding competition.
  • Males are territorially aggressive and maintain vocal contact to avoid aggressive interactions. 
  • Vocalizations include growls, barks, screams, and a repeated yap in alarm.

Ecology:

  • Spider monkeys are very important to the health and natural structure of the rainforest for they are seed dispersers, aiding in the distribution of seeds of the fruit trees that they eat.  A seed can pass through the digestive system of a monkey, unharmed, in 3 hours, allowing the monkey to carry the seed far from the parent tree.  Dung beetles also aid in this process by burying the excrement of the monkeys, protecting the seeds from seed predators, like rodents, which eat and destroy the seeds.

Threats:  Hunting and habitat loss

Tying It All Together

Locally, the spider monkey population has been nearly extirpated, meaning that they have come close to local extinction, with an optimistic estimate of 30 monkeys remaining.  All over tropical America, spider monkeys are the first species of monkey to be extirpated.  The conservation status of any animal is directly related to their natural history and behavior. The mature fruit trees from which spider monkeys feed occur at low densities in the rainforest, requiring large, undisturbed tracts of forest to obtain enough food.  The spider monkeys of the Burica Peninsula have surely been negatively affected by the loss of habitat to the human settlers needing land to grow food, but more so because they have been a preferred source of wild meat and traditional Ngäbe medicine.  Their high-energy diet of fruit requires that they travel large distances to feed, and as a result have well developed muscles and flavorful meat.  Additionally, their large body size and noisy calls make them an easy target to locate in the forest.  Since spider monkeys reproduce every 3 years, and take a long time to become sexually mature, they are very slow to recuperate from historic hunting pressures.   Although it is believed that spider monkeys are no longer threatened by hunting, the health of their population is highly threatened by their inability to search for mates outside of the region, making them susceptible to  inbreeding, which threatens their ability to resist sickness.  Additionally, the extremely small population here makes them very vulnerable to changes in climate and natural disasters.

Reason for Hope

The spider monkey has been selected as the flagship species for Amigos de los Monos, because they are charismatic and able to attract local and international support for conservation efforts. In the last decade, a group of local Ngäbe people agreed to stop hunting the spider monkey, realizing that if hunting continued at the former rate, the next generation of children would not know the jungle acrobats.  Thankfully, there is plenty of primary forest in the Burica Peninsula to support a growing population. Finally, there have been very hopeifying sightings of the spiders near the village of Punta Banco, where they have not been seen since the land was settled decades ago.  

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ENDANGERED

Saimiri oerstedii oerstedii                   
English: black-crowned Central American squirrel monkey
Spanish: mono titi
Ngäbere:  droaba

Estimated Costa Rican population (Saimiri oerstedii):

  • 1995: 7,300
  • 2007: 4,200
  • Decline: 43%

Distinguishing characteristics: 

  • Very small
  • Black crown on head forms a pointed arch over their eyes.  The muzzle is also black and the remainder of the face is white.

Distribution:  southwest Costa Rica and northwest Panama

Life History:

  • Life span: up to 21 years
  • Gestation: 7 months
  • Infant dependency:  1 year
  • Sexually maturity:  3-5 years
  • Reproduction rate: 1 birth every 12 months
  • Dispersion: females leave natal group upon sexual maturity

Diet:  Insectivorous omnivores, eating primarily insects and small vertebrates, supplemented with fruit, flowers and seeds.

Habitat: Secondary forests, riverside forests, and areas disturbed by humans.  

Home range: 35-110 ha

Social Structure: 

  • Large multimale-multifemale groups of up to 70 animals aid in predator defense
  • A peaceful and egalitarian society with minimal aggression among group members and a lack of a sex linked dominance hierarchy
  • Vocalizations are dominated by bird-like chirps

Ecology

  • Squirrel monkeys aid in maintaining healthy population levels of insects.  This is not only helpful to the ecosystem that they live in, but may be beneficial to farmers as pest control.

Threats:  Increase in tourism, electrocution, habitat loss

Tying It All Together

The small geographic distribution of the squirrel monkeys contributes largely to their classification as an endangered species.  Locals find it hard to believe that they are endangered, since they are the most commonly seen monkeys near human settlements.  Areas disturbed by humans have a lot of young trees that are constantly producing new leaves, where the insect prey of the squirrel monkey are most easily encountered. Squirrel monkey populations become increasingly endangered with increased tourism and development.  Roads and power lines result in monkey death by getting hit by cars and electrocution.  Additionally, it is not uncommon to hear of residents and tourists alike feeding the monkeys, reducing the natural fear monkeys have of humans, disrupting natural feeding behavior and increasing vulnerability to disease transmission.

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LEAST CONCERN

Alouatta palliata palliata                
English: mantled howler monkey
Spanish: mono congo, mono negro
Ngäbere:  jüri

Estimated Costa Rican population:

  • 1995: 102,000
  • 2007: 36,000
  • Decline: 64%

Distinguishing characteristics: 

  • Enlarged throat in order to fit its vocal chords to howl
  • A long prehensile tail that serves as a fifth limb when eating and traveling.

Distribution:  southern Mexico to northwest coast of South America

Life History:

  • Life span: up to 20 years
  • Gestation: 6 months
  • Infant dependency:  1.5 years
  • Sexually maturity:  4 years
  • Reproduction rate: 1 birth every 2 years
  • Dispersion: males and females leave natal group upon sexual maturity

Diet: 

  • Folivore-frugivores, eating both leaves and fruit, depending on the season and food availability.  During the wet season the fruit of fig trees can comprise as much as half of their food intake.  In the dry season, when fruit is scarcer, the monkeys consume more leaves.  Folivary is rare among American monkeys, as leaves are hard to digest, but the howlers have adapted by choosing younger leaves that are easier to digest and by minimizing their energy expenditure by reducing the amount of time that they travel throughout the day.

Habitat:

  • Howlers prefer the upper canopy in primary rainforests, however they use all forest levels and even travel on the ground when necessary to reach a food source or another patch of forest.

Home range: 27-91 ha

Social Structure: 

  • Multimale-multifemales groups that range in size between 15-19 individuals.
  • Groups are dominated by alpha males who remain in charge for 3 years.
  • There is an inter-female hierarchy where the dominant female is normally the youngest, although the mid-rank females experience the most reproductive success.
  • Vocalizations include howls in response to other groups, potential predators, human observers, and even natural weather patterns like wind and rain.  The famous howl has evolved with the diet of the howler monkeys; the howler has developed its call in order to announce it’s territory from a large distance and avoid physical confrontations, thus conserving energy.

Ecology

  • Howler monkeys are very important to the health and natural structure of the rainforest for they are seed dispersers, aiding in the distribution of seeds of the fruit trees that they eat.  A seed can pass through the digestive system of a monkey, unharmed, in 3 hours, allowing the monkey to carry the seed far from the parent tree.  Dung beetles also aid in this process by burying the excrement of the monkeys, protecting the seeds from seed predators, like rodents, which eat and destroy the seeds.  Howler monkeys are especially important seed dispersers in fragmented forests, where the seed dispersing spider monkeys are normally extirpated.
  • The gut of the howler monkey is home to an ecosystem of microorganisms that aid in the fermentation of leaf matter, which help the monkeys extract precious energy from their leafy diet when fruit availability is low.

Threats:  Hunting and habitat loss

  • The fat of howler monkeys has been used as a source of traditional Ngäbe medicine for lung related sickness.  The fat is also fed to children to stop them from eating earth.

Tying It All Together

As with all animals, the conservation status of the howler monkey is directly related to its natural history and behavior.  The large geographic range aids in its evaluation as least concern.  Additionally, its leaf eating tendencies aid in its survival.  The availability of leaves in all forest types, affords the howler monkeys a greater flexibility in the type of forests that it can inhabit.  Despite their large size and the ease of finding them in the forest canopy, the howlers monkeys are not a preferred source of wild meat; their leafy diet does not afford them the energy to develop their muscles and it is said that the flavor of the meat reflects their diet.  However, with the decline in spider monkeys in the region, the reported hunting of howler monkeys for food and medicine has gone up.    

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LEAST CONCERN

Cebus capucinus capucinus               
English: white-faced capuchin monkey
Spanish: mono carablanca
Ngäbere:  droa

Estimated Costa Rican population:

  • 1995: 95,000
  • 2007: 54,000
  • Decline: 43%

Distinguishing characteristics: 

  • The size of a domestic cat
  • White coloration on their head, throat and shoulders

Distribution:  Honduras to northwest coast of South America

Life History:

  • Life span: up to 30 years
  • Gestation: 6 months
  • Infant dependency:  1 year
  • Sexually maturity:  4 years
  • Reproduction rate: 1 birth every 2 years
  • Dispersion: males leave natal group upon sexual maturity

Diet:  Omnivores, eating fruits, nuts, berries, seeds, tree bark, insects, spiders and small vertebrates.

Habitat: Prefer the canopy of primary and secondary forests, however they are very adaptable and are known to occupy most forest types including mangroves and sparsely forested areas.

Home range: 50-100 ha

Social Structure: 

  • Multimale-multifemale groups that range in size between 10-15 individuals.
  • Females maintain very strong bonds, since they remain within the group that they were born.
  • The alpha male is highly territorial and will defend its group threatening outsiders by growling and bearing his teeth.
  • Vocalizations include ninnies,  barks and screams.

Ecology

  • Capuchin monkeys are seed dispersers,  aiding in the distribution of seeds of the fruit trees that they eat.  They are also pollinators, transferring pollen from one plant to another while feeding.  Capuchins also aid in the proliferation of certain trees in the Brazil nut family whose buds they eat.  Eating the buds in turn increases the branching of the tree and improves fruit production. 

Threats:  Hunted as crop pests and habitat loss

Tying It All Together

As with all animals, the conservation status of the capuchin monkey is directly related to its natural history and behavior.  The large geographic range aids in its evaluation as least concern. Additionally, its varied diet and small size allows them to exploit a variety of habitats, especially those disturbed by humans.  Capuchins are very intelligent monkeys and are able to exploit human cultivated crops such as corn and cacao, the derivative of chocolate.  They are hunted as a result, however their meat is not eaten, since they are so small.  Their rapid reproduction rate allows them to recover easily from this minimal hunting pressure.

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