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Spider Monkeys

Spider Monkeys

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  • Scientific Name: Ateles geoffroi
  • Status in the Wild: Endangered
  • Habitat: Cloud Forests, Rainforests, Tropical Dry Forests, Woodlands
  • Diet: Omnivore

Spider monkeys, with their powerful prehensile tails, are the most agile species of monkey found in Costa Rica. The exact number of species that exists is a topic of debate, but scientists agree that there are either four or five distinct types. The most common to Costa Rica is the black-handed spider monkey, known in Spanish as the mono arana or mono colorado.

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These primates have an endearing physical appearance. The textured area at the tip of their tails facilitates movements such as collecting water, picking fruit, and hanging from trees. The tail is longer than the length of the head and body combined, ranging from 25 to 33 inches. The prehensile tail has evolved to allow the animals to grasp, dangle, and swing effortlessly from the treetops – virtually functioning as a fifth arm.

Extraordinarily long limbs are slender and dark in color, with arms stretching 25% longer than legs. Males and females are roughly the same size, weighing between 13 and 20 pounds. Spider monkeys have dark faces, black feet, potbellies, and black, brown, or rust-colored body hair. They have no opposable thumbs, making social grooming difficult. While this used to be the most common variety of monkey in the country, sightings in the wild are now considered a rarity. The arboreal creatures seldom descend from the treetops; to survive they require large stretches of unobstructed forest, which have been greatly diminished over the last few decades.

Extremely expressive social creatures, spider monkeys communicate with body gestures as well as with screeches, barks and whines that can be heard on the forest floor as far away as 3,280 feet, and audible up to 6,560 feet above the canopy. Spider monkeys subsist primarily on ripened fruit, with leaves, flowers, insects, bark, honey, and roots making up the remaining 20-30% of their diet. Jaguars, eagles, snakes and humans are the animals’ only predators. Spider monkeys are quick and flexible, with a life span of roughly 27 years in the wild and 30 plus years in captivity.

Habitat:

Spider monkeys inhabit evergreen rainforests, mangrove forests, and semi-deciduous forests. They sleep high in the trees, preferably close to a food source and safe from predators. Of the seven subspecies of black-handed spider monkeys, four are found in Costa Rica. They are also distributed throughout Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, and even parts of Mexico and Columbia.

These acrobatic primates demonstrate fission and fusion behavior: at night they bind together into one large unit of 20-40 individuals, but during the day they scour the forest in smaller groups of three to four. Scientists believe that this divide and conquer strategy allows all members of a community an equal opportunity to forage for food.

In Costa Rica, fairly large populations are known to occupy Santa Rosa National Park, Corcovado National Park, Tortuguero National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Located on the Nicoya Peninsula, Curu Wildlife Refuge has a monkey sanctuary where wounded spider monkeys are nursed back to health and then reintroduced into the wild. Here, the creatures can be viewed within a controlled recuperation zone.

Reproduction:

Females become sexually mature as early as age four, while males are ready to mate at five. They typically give birth to one offspring after a gestation period of seven and a half months (226-232 days). Females breed year-round, delivering an infant once every one and a half to four years.

An infant will cling to its mother’s belly for about two months and then catch a ride on her back. Even though mothers nurse their young for about one year, babies are able to eat solid food and move about on their own after three to five months. Nonetheless, they remain dependent upon their mothers for at least four years.

Status in the Wild:

All of the seven subspecies of black-handed spider monkeys are classified as endangered, critically endangered, or vulnerable on the Red List created by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Spider monkeys play a critical role in the ecosystem by dispersing flower and plant seeds in their dung, which aids in rainforest habitat regeneration. Many inhabited areas are protected by Costa Rica’s extensive national park system, and by small-scale programs like Conservacion y Libertad de los Monos, or Conservation and Freedom of the Monkeys.