Spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) are one of the largest New World monkeys, they get their name from their tendency to stretch like a spider high up into the trees. They are easy to recognize with their long limbs and a unique tail that is longer than their body. The tail is used as a fifth limb for support and swinging in the tree, but also provides an advantage to the monkeys by allowing them to hang from their tails and grasp hard to reach fruit. Spider monkeys spend most
of their feeding time looking for fruit, their specialized digestive systems allow them to eat fruit whole, essentially saving the time required to break open and eat the fruit. The rainforests of Central America, Mexico and South America are where these playful primates spend most of their time.
What Do We Know about Spider Monkeys in the Wild?
No one could accuse spider monkeys of having a boring population. With anywhere between 2-3 dozen monkeys in a single population, the trees can quickly get loud and hectic as the monkeys communicate to each other. A single population of these monkeys contains males and females under the watchful eye of a matriarch that keeps them in order and on a feeding schedule, the matriarch of the group also decides how large the group can get. The distribution of males to females in the population is not equal, with females occupying the majority of the group. At 4-5 years the monkeys reach their age of sexual maturity and can begin mating with other monkeys. while males stay in the population, females leave to find a new group to mate with. Although the single group is very large, they do not stay together at all times. Sleeping and feeding parties are organized by the matriarch of the group and they take turns feeding in the canopy of the trees or sleeping while others keep watch. The structure of the spider monkey society is strict, but they always find time to play around!
Where Do They Live?
Spider monkeys have the perfect limbs for swinging high in the trees, with their long limbs and even longer tail that allow them to navigate the canopy. Tending to stay in the tops of the trees, they rarely coming down from the canopy, and feed over a large range of the forest. These primates tend to avoid contact with humans when they can, and have been known to leave areas that have been disturbed by humans. You can tell when a spider monkey is defending its territory by the loud barking and other vocalizations they make when they feel disturbed or threatened. Spider monkeys play a large role in the ecology of the forest, their consumption of fruits allows them to spread the seeds through defecation throughout the forest. In order to thrive in the forest, spider monkeys need a large canopy to hide from aerial predators such as eagles, and a large range to travel and feed in. Deforestation in the rainforests these monkeys call home is making these last two conditions harder and harder to find.
Conservation and Spider Monkeys
Spider monkeys face several challenges trying to hold on to their habitat. Several predators can have a drastic effect on populations including eagles, hawks, owls, pumas and jaguars. Eagles and other predatory birds prey on the young of the population, taking a baby spider monkey as a meal if the canopy does not provide protection. Jaguars and puma are stealthy enough to sneak up on a spider monkey and take them down. However, even though their natural predators can have an effect on the overall population size, it is the human population that causes the most damage for this species. Deforestation has a direct effect on the range of feeding grounds the monkeys have access too, and also creates fragmentation in the forest that can separate individuals or groups from the rest of the population if they get stuck. On top of the effects we have on their habitat, the illegal pet trade targets these animals as inventory and sells them to the public. Spider monkeys carry their babies for 7.5 months before they are born and then usually have a two year period before they will have another baby. The long time span in between offspring makes it difficult for these animals to combat threats to their dwindling population fast enough.
- All photos by Brittany Devasure/Ricochet Creative Productions LLC
Article by Brittany Devasure. Brittany is a senior majoring in Cell and Molecular Biology at Appalachian State University. Brittany is a science communication intern at Ricochet Creative Productions where she is responsible for photography projects as well as writing articles on trending scientific discoveries.