Habitat & Range: Brown or Tufted, Capuchins ( Sapajus apella) are a South American species found primarily in Brazil, around the Amazon Basin. They occupy tropical rainforests as well as savannah forests, mangroves and varzea (seasonally inundated forests).
Feeding Behaviour : Typically found from the understory to the forest floor, capuchins spend most of their time foraging for a wide variety of foods. They feed on large quantities of fruits and insects as well as plant matter such as fresh stems, leaves, buds and flowers. They will hunt smaller animals like frogs, bats and birds and also feed on eggs (Buchanan-Smith 2012). When foraging, the monkeys will tell each other when they have found food and the dominant monkeys will get first pick, whatever is left will go to the lower ranking individuals. However, tactical deception has been observed in capuchins as a way for low ranking monkeys to get a meal if there is not enough to go round. Subordinate individuals will give an alarm call so the dominant monkeys will make an escape, leaving food behind for those waiting (Wheeler, 2009). As one of the most intelligent monkeys they are also known for their tool use, using sticks to extend their reach and rocks to break into hard shelled nuts (Ottoni & Izar, 2008).
Social Structure : Group sizes can vary between 6-30 individuals but on average there will be 18. Hierarchies exist with males being the most dominant. The number of females will equal/exceed the numbers of males within a group. There will be an alpha male and dominant females at the head of the group (Leonardi et al., 2010). The position of alpha male is an important one and he will be challenged by the lower ranking monkeys when they feel they are strong enough to overpower him. Being alpha has many advantages as he will get the pick of the food, and the females. This social structure allows for the more dominant and fit monkey’s genes to be passed on more easily than the weaker monkeys on the periphery.
Conservation Status: These monkeys are classed as Least Concern by IUCN, although some small populations are in decline (Rylands et al. 2008). Threats to the species include hunting for food and the illegal pet trade as well as habitat fragmentation due to an increase in the human population.
Monkeys in Living Links: The monkeys at Edinburgh Zoo show similar behaviours to those in the wild. First of all you will notice we hold 2 species in Living Links; capuchin and squirrel monkeys. They have access to the same parts of the enclosure; the only exception being capuchins cannot access the indoor squirrel monkey enclosure. This allows the two species to interact as they would in the wild but also gives the squirrel monkeys an opportunity to get away from the bigger, more boisterous capuchins. You won’t see any grooming between them but you will see them foraging together. In the wild there is also a mutualistic relationship when it comes to protecting themselves against predators. They will communicate with each other if there are any threats and capuchins will even attack predators to scare them away (Leonardi et al., 2010).
Monkey Medicine: In the wild, capuchins will rub themselves with a variety of substances which have a strong smell this behaviour is called ‘fur rubbing’. They will crush acidic ants or millipedes and rub them all over their bodies along with urine to protect themselves against biting insects, such as mosquitoes and ticks. Rubbing urine on themselves is also thought to control temperature and is even good for general hygiene (Paukner & Suomi, 2008). Research work has been done at Living Links looking at the use of onions, citrus fruit and garlic in fur rubbing and you will occasionally see the keepers putting these things in to encourage these natural behaviours.
Smart Monkeys: One of the reasons we chose capuchins for the research at Living Links is because of their intelligence. They have a relatively large brain, for their body size, and training them to participate in the research is a form of enrichment. Being challenged and solving problems and puzzles is a way of replicating some of the challenges faced in the wild. Using positive reinforcement techniques, the monkeys are trained to come in and out of the research cubicles where the researchers can have the monkeys participate in various tasks. This is voluntary for the monkeys and they are free to leave the research room at any point.
For more information on capuchins and the facility at Edinburgh Zoo, please head over to our Publications part of the website where you can read about some of the scientific discoveries that have come out of the Living Links Centre.
Leonardi, R., Buchanan-Smith, H., Dufour, V., MacDonald, C. & Whiten, A. (2010) Living Together: Behaviour and welfare in single and mixed species groups of capuchin (Cebus apella) and squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus). American Journal of Primatology 72(1):33-47.
Ottoni, E. B. and Izar, P. (2008), Capuchin monkey tool use: Overview and implications. Evol. Anthropol., 17: 171–178. doi: 10.1002/evan.20185
Paukner A, Suomi SJ (2008) The effects of fur rubbing on the social behavior of tufted capuchin monkeys. Am J Primatol 70:1007–1012
Rylands, A.B., Boubli, J.-P., Mittermeier, R.A., Wallace, R.B. & Ceballos-Mago, N. 2008. Cebus apella. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 8 April 2013
Wheeler, B. C. (2009) Monkeys crying wolf? Tufted capuchin monkeys use anti-predator calls to usurp resources from conspecifics. Proc. R. Soc. B 276, 3013–3018.
For an overview and comparison of capuchin and squirrel monkey biology, see Hannah Buchanan-Smith’s Capuchin and Squirrel Monkey Comparison document.