The Primates of Costa Rica

This topic submitted by Emily Chumura ( chumurec@miamioh.edu) at 2:01 PM on 6/18/06.

A swim in a tropical stream, Corcovado Natl Park.

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University


Emily C. Chumura
GLG 412
May 19, 2006


The Primates of Costa Rica


Costa Rica is a beautiful country that is teeming with animal and plant diversity. One of the most interesting creatures that live in this area is the monkey, and many people have a great love for these animals because of their high intelligence and charisma. The personalities, behaviors, physical appearance, and habitat differ among all primates. Four different species of monkeys are present in Costa Rica, and they all possess a variety of characteristics that distinguish each of them as a species. These precious animals are in danger of losing their habitat and their lives, and they must be helped in order to maintain the monkey population in Costa Rica.

As previously mentioned, there are four types of primates in Costa Rica, and they consist of the white-faced capuchin, the howler, the spider, and the squirrel monkey. The white-faced capuchin received its name from its appearance of a black, furry body with a white-haired face. It is the most intelligent and most curious primate of Costa Rica (C. Baker), and this particular species has a long lifespan and can live for 40 or more years (Baker 244). Its natural habitat is typically arboreal, and it can be found from anywhere from Belize to Northern Columbia. On the Caribbean Coast, the capuchin lives in wet lowland forests, but they seem to prefer dry forest on the Pacific Coast (Infocostarica). Next, the howler monkey got its name from its frequently heard, almost frightening, call. This species is the largest of the four, and it seems to be the most aggressive because of its loud, raucous scream, but it’s not. The howler can be found in montane and lowland forests throughout Costa Rica, and it has demonstrated great resilience to deforestation (C. Baker). The spider monkey is copper in color and has long, skinny limbs, which help it to swing from tree to tree. This species is particularly aggressive; sometimes shaking branches and shrieking loudly to show their bravery (C. Baker). Because the spider monkey is mostly arboreal, it has been severely effected by habitat destruction—more so than the other monkey species of Costa Rica (Allen 15). Finally, the squirrel monkey is the smallest of the four primates, and it spends much of its time on the floor of the forest, trying to avoid predators. This animal can typically be found in herds of 30 or more monkeys, which is uncommon for the other primate species (C. Baker). Squirrel monkeys usually enjoy people, and are often deemed the “favorite” species in Costa Rica because of their charming demeanor (Bergman 79).

In terms of food, the four species of primates in Costa Rica vary in what they consume. The white-faced capuchin tends to be a “picky” eater. Often times they will pick insects from fruit, and they will test that fruit for ripeness by squeezing and smelling it. This monkey will also look under logs and tear bark from trees in order to find insects and small lizards (C. Baker). Like the capuchin, the howler monkey is somewhat of a selective eater. They mostly feed on leaves, which consists of 64 percent of their diet, and the remaining 36 percent accounts for fruit. Surprisingly, the howler can feed on almost anything that grows, but as previously mentioned, they are discriminatory towards what they consume (C. Baker). The spider monkey, like the howler, feeds on fruits and leaves, but the percent consumption is completely different. This species eats approximately 80 percent fruits and 20 percent leaves. It has also been discovered that the spider monkey prefers young leaves to old (Kricher 299). Lastly, the squirrel monkey’s diet includes a variety of things—fruits, insects, and even small lizards. An interesting fact is that in times of surplus food, the squirrel monkey has been known to forage with the capuchin. But, when food is limited, the squirrel typically loses out to the much larger capuchin (C. Baker). This species has also been found to eat bananas, plantains, and citrus fruits around villages (Kricher 297).

Much like humans, monkeys exhibit their own types of unique, and sometimes unusual, behaviors. For example, the white-faced capuchin practices what is known as handsniffing. “One monkey places another’s hand or foot over its own face and, with eyes closed, inhales deeply and repeatedly” (Baker 247). A study done by Baker and colleagues showed that along with handsniffing, the monkeys also placed their fingers in the nostrils of another and would leave them there for several minutes. Grooming is also common before, after, and during these procedures. In the same study, capuchins were also found to suck each other’s toes, fingers, ears, or tails, and this behavior sometimes lasted up to an hour or more (Baker 249). The most interesting characteristic of the howler monkey is, in fact, its screaming and shrieking. “Beside the screeches of the macaws and toucans, the most arresting sound is that of the howler monkeys. A troop in full voice sounds like something from Jurassic Park. Almost scary” (Reichmann). The spider monkey possesses a trait unlike the other monkeys, in that it is known as the “supreme acrobat of the forest” (C. Baker). They move very quickly through the trees due to their long arms and legs. Although they may seem cute, they can be aggressive. Another fascinating behavior is that the spider monkey males distance themselves from the females and mark their territory by secreting fluid from glands in their chest (C. Baker). Squirrel monkeys are unique in the fact that they enjoy traveling in large groups, and they are always on the go—day and night (C. Baker). It would not be uncommon to be approached by a group of squirrel monkeys because they tend to be friendly and charismatic. They are considered to be the most social of the Costa Rican primates (Bergman 79).

All around the globe forests are being destroyed for human expansion. For as long as can be remembered, monkeys have co-existed with humans, but the rate of deforestation and habitat annihilation has been increasing and becoming more severe. This has caused the primate population in Costa Rica, and other tropical environments, to decrease (Fedigan 690). More specifically, squirrel monkeys have disappeared from regions they used to inhabit, such as Panama. Recently, this primate population has drastically declined, causing all of Costa Rica’s squirrel monkeys to be endangered (Bergman 80). And, it is important to add that “Without intervention, they are most certainly drifting toward extinction” (Bergman 80). Another example pertains to the spider monkey. This species was once one of the most widespread monkeys of Central America, but now its population size is rapidly on the decline. The spider monkey is not only very sensitive to human intrusion, but it is also hunted for its “tasty” flesh (C. Baker). The howler monkey is not as sensitive to habitat destruction as the previous examples, but it has been significantly affected. A study on response of howlers to deforestation showed that the devastation had short and long-term impacts on these monkeys. The short-term effects included a drop in the number of social interactions and an increase in traveling. The long-term effects included adjustment to a new, narrower environment and a major decline in the actual population size (Clarke 365). It is fairly obvious that this type of habitat fragmentation and destruction is severely affecting the Costa Rica monkey population, and it could eventually lead to the extinction of a number of species.

Approximately 40 million years ago, a number of primates migrated to North America and began evolving much differently then their “brothers” in Asia and Africa. These monkeys were termed New World Monkeys, and they developed distinguishing characteristics such as the ability to have twins, widely spaced nostrils, and tails that were long and able to grasp trees. Because of habitat destruction and deforestation, it is hoped that these animals are adapting to their ever-changing environment. Many studies are being conducted in order to observe the effect of habitat fragmentation and destruction on the New World Monkeys (Earthwatch Institute). Hopefully, with our help, these animals will be able to overcome the devastation of their natural environments.

The primates of Costa Rica are an exceptional group of animals that add personality to the diversity of the country. We share common ancestors with these creatures, which makes observing and studying them even more fascinating. Their behaviors are unique to their specific kind, and new facts about these primates are being learned everyday. But, the rapid decrease in the Costa Rican, Central and South American monkey population is a major concern, and efforts must continue in order to preserve these incredible primates. The preservation of Central and South American forests will help to sustain the monkeys, and lets face it, they’re an indispensable part of our ecosystems.


Works Cited
Allen, William. "On Standby for the New Ark." Field Notes (1994): 15-17. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 06 Apr. 2006.
Baker, Christopher. "Cosa Rica, Mammals." Photo.Net. 2006. 04 Apr. 2006 .
Baker, Mary, Linda Fedigan, Julie Gros-Louis, Katherine Jack, Katherine C. Mackinnon, Joseph H. Manson, Melissa Panger, Kendra Pyle, and Lisa Rose. "Social Conventions in Wild White-Faced Capuchin Monkeys." Current Anthropology 44.2 (2003): 241-268. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 06 Apr. 2006.
Bergman, Charles. "The Peaceful Primates." Smithsonian 30.3 (1999): 78-85. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 06 Apr. 2006.
Clarke, Margaret R., Darrin A. Collins, and Evan L. Zucker. "Responses to Deforestation in a Group of Mantled Howlers in Costa Rica." International Journal of Primatology 23.2 (2002): 365-381. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 06 Apr. 2006.
"Costa Rica's Howlers Annd Capuchins." Earthwatch Institute. 2005. Earthwatch Institute--United States. 04 Apr. 2006 .
Fedigan, Linda M., and Katherine Jack. "Neotropical Primates in a Regenerating Costa Rican Dry Forest: a Comparison of Howler and Capuchin Population Patterns." International Journal of Primatology 22.5 (2001): 689-713. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 06 Apr. 2006.
Kricher, John C. A Neotropical Companion. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997. 3-
451.
Reichmann, Michael. "Monkeys." The Luminous Landscape. 2001. 04 Apr. 2006
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