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White-headed Capuchin, Cebus capucinus

The white-headed Capuchin (Cebus capucinus) is a New World monkey that is native to Central America, as well as the far northwestern area of South America. It is also known as the white-faced capuchin and the white-throated capuchin. Its Central American range includes Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. Reports have shown that it may occur in southern Belize and eastern Guatemala, but these reports have not been confirmed. Its South American range is limited to the northwestern area between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean in northwestern Ecuador and Colombia.

The white-headed capuchin appears in many habitats, but it prefers primary and advanced secondary forests. It also occurs in mangrove, evergreen, deciduous, arid, and moist forests. More capuchins are found in forested areas that are older, or in areas that have abundant water sources during the arid seasons.

In the 18th century work Systema Naturae, written by Carl Linnaeus, the white-headed capuchin and many other animals were formally described. It was placed in the Cebidae family along with squirrel monkeys, tamarins, and marmosets. The white-headed capuchin was used as the type specimen for the Cebus genus that holds all capuchin monkeys. Some experts assert that there are three subspecies of the white-headed capuchin based off small variances, including C. c. capucinus, C. c. imitator, C. c. limitaneus, but other experts disagree and place C. c. imitator and C. c. limitaneus as synonyms, or names, of only on subspecies, C. c. capucinus.

The white-headed capuchin derives its name from the order of Capuchin friars whose cowls resemble the capuchin monkey’s fur colorations. The majority if its fur is dark or black in color, with a golden white color appearing on the throat, chest, upper arms, shoulders, and neck. The face is pinkish white in color, and may hold distinctive darker brows or markings. These monkeys also bear a dark crown on the top of the head. The tail is often held in a coiled position, granting it the nickname “ringtail”. The average adult body length of this species can be as much as 1.4 feet, not including the tail, which can reach a length of 1.8 feet. Adults can weigh an average of 8.6 pounds, with males typically weighing more than females.

The white-headed capuchin is diurnal, and lives in groups that average forty individuals. Typically females within these groups will spend their entire lives with other female members. Males will migrate between groups with other males, usually members of their family, although solitary males have been recorded. There is a developed and useful social structure that supports these groups.

This social structure is well documented, and can be seen greatly between female members of a group. In larger groups, females that are related maternally will groom and associate with each other. These behaviors are not shared with females that are only related by their father, suggesting that kinship is only noted if it is maternal. The rank of each member is also an important factor when it comes to associations, with individuals ranked closer tending to form more bonds more than others do. Males and females do not often show associations by grooming and alliances. These alliances prove valuable when aggression occurs, with smaller members or individuals lower in the hierarchy enlisting help from allies that are ranked higher.

Unlike Old World monkeys, such as macaques, white-headed capuchins do not inherit their rank within the social hierarchy. The easiest rank to discern is that of the alpha male, and the rankings of lesser males can sometimes be hard to distinguish. Under the males are the females, whose ranks are not predictable. Alliances between males are rocky, but are most often seen with behaviors like playing and resting together. These relationships, although shaky, are important for the safety of the entire group. Male capuchins will gather together when the group migrates for protection, and will fight together if needed. If a foreign male is approached, allied males can even go as far as to kill the stranger male. This is the leading cause of death in the white-headed capuchin species, next to human caused death, and so alliances are important to male survival.

Males will migrate from group to group about every four years. When entering a new group, the male will typically attempt to kill many young. When young are nursing, they prevent their mother from going into estrous. New males kill the babies in order to induce estrous in females. Mothers will often band together to protect their young, but this usually end in failure. Eventually, the females will come to accept the new alpha male and mate with, assuming the social structure that previously held.

Groups of white-headed capuchins occupy territories that average between 79 and 210 acres. These ranges overlap, and each group can travel an average of 1.2 miles a day. The capuchins do display territorial behavior, although when encountering other groups, it is thought that the aggression that occurs is not territorial.

Because the aggression is not territorial, the most likely causes for it are the dangers of violent encounters and infanticide that occurs among the males of each group. Females will carry their young and run, while the males stay behind to defend the group. Alpha males, who hold the most breeding rights, will fight more aggressively than lesser males, who will still defend the group. Although larger groups with more males will often have the advantage, smaller groups who are in the center of their home range will typically defeat larger groups.

White-headed capuchins implement a polygamous mating system, in which a male can mate with many females. Although the alpha males hold breeding rights to most of the females, lesser males will also father some young. The alpha male will choose to mate with females who are at the peak of their estrous, although he will not mate with his daughters.

After mating female white-headed capuchins can be pregnant for up to six months, typically producing one young between the months of December to April, although twins do occur. The young will remain attached to their mother’s backs for up to six weeks, but at four to five weeks of age, they are slightly able to move on their own. At three months of age, the young are capable of moving without their mother’s although most will reach this point before three months.

While the mother capuchin rests, the baby will play with other young members of the group or forage for food. Alloparenting is important in groups of white-headed capuchins, and even males will partake in the parenting. Young are weaned at three months of age, but mature slowly and will not be ready to mate until at least three years of age. Typically, females will give birth for the first time at seven years of age, while males will not mate until ten years of age. Even though it is a small species, it has a long life span and the oldest living white-headed capuchin reached 54 years of age.

The white-headed capuchin can make a variety of vocalizations, and these are typically loud and boisterous. Calls can vary from soft squeals to barks, and each call is used in a specific situation, like mating or warning of a threat. These monkeys will also use facial expressions and scent markings for communication. It is thought that “urine washing”, the process by which a capuchin will douse its feet in urine, is one form of scent communication.

Capuchins have been well studied and are now considered one of the most intelligent of all New World monkey species. It is thought that this intelligence is an adaptation that is vital to the monkey’s foraging habits. They are known to use objects around them as tools, for protection from snakes and for foraging purposes. Sometimes, the white-headed capuchin will rub plants on their fur, and it is thought that this may protect against parasites.
Monkey comb, citrus fruits, and custard apple are among the most commonly used plants in this process. It is possible that this behavior is used to ward of inflammation or infections, or that it may be a form of scent marking. There has been one reported case of a capuchin using a squirrel monkey as a projectile, which was thrown at a human.

Because of their intelligence, white-headed capuchins and other capuchin species have been used as assistants to paraplegics. Capuchins can also be trained to work in show business, appearing on television and in movies. One of the most popular appearances of a capuchin monkey on television was Marcel in the show Friends. Traditionally, capuchin monkeys were used as organ grinders, performing on the streets with “street organs”.

The white-headed capuchin is an omnivorous species, but its main diet consists of fruits and insects. Its diet can vary depending on its location and the seasons, comprising mainly fruit or insects in each season. Its preferred fruits include figs, mangoes, and the bean-like fruit from the Leguminosae family. It will test the ripeness of the fruit by smelling and probing at it, consuming only the pulp and juices.

These capuchins will eat many insects including beetle larvae, moth caterpillars, wasps, and ants. In some areas of its range, it is known to eat small animals like squirrels and crabs, as well as birds and bird eggs. The vertebrae portions of its diet vary between groups and even neighboring groups will not eat the same amount.
With such a varied diet, the white-headed capuchin uses many foraging methods. It can be seen searching for food in every level of the forest, including the floor.  It will tear bark from trees, roll over rocks, and even use hard objects to break tough fruit or mollusks. Water is important to this species, and it is known to drink from many sources every day.

The white-headed capuchin, like many species of monkeys, is known to interact with other species, although any other animals besides monkeys are followers. These capuchins often travel with Geoffroy’s spider monkeys, and may even groom them. However, aggression between the species does occur. When the capuchins encounter mantled howlers, they most often do not form alliances, but young of both species will play together. Non-primate species that are associated with the white-headed capuchin include the white-lipped peccary and the common agouti, which follow the monkeys in order to eat dropped fruit. Several bird species will follow behind them as well, including the white hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk.

In South America, many capuchin species will travel with squirrel monkeys, but is rarely seen with the Central American squirrel monkey. It is thought that this separation occurs because of the fragmented range of the squirrel monkey, and because of the lack of shared food preferences between the two species. Because of this, and because of the capuchin’s tendency to spend more defensive energy on competing with rival males, there are not many reasons for the Central American squirrel monkey to follow the white-headed capuchin. Instead, the squirrel monkeys will typically follow the South American capuchins.

The white-headed capuchin does not have many impending threats, although capture for use in the pet trade and deforestation are considered threats. Deforestation does not directly affect this species however, instead affecting its main predator, the harpy eagle, and so it is thought that deforestation may not be a threat to the capuchins. They are able to reside in a large number of habitats, so forest fragmentation is not a major threat either.

The white-headed capuchin is important to its environment in many ways. It is a known seed and pollen disperser, as well as a seed germinator. It consumes insect species that are considered pests, and it may even aid in tree maintenance when pruning certain species, allowing the trees to grow better. The white-headed capuchin appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Least Concern”.

Image Caption: Wild Capuchin monkey (Cebus capucinus), on a tree near a river bank in the jungles of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Credit: David M. Jensen/Wikipedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

White-headed Capuchin Cebus capucinus


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