Monkey, Capuchin

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Physical Characteristics

Capuchin monkeys got their name because of the dark-colored cap of fur on their head and dark “sideburns,” which were thought to resemble the headdresses of the monks in the Order of Capuchin Friars. Their overall fur coloring varies greatly depending on the subspecies, but for most, their body is usually a dark brown with lighter cream coloring around the neck and face. On average, most capuchins weigh between 3 to 9 pounds, measure between 13 to 22 inches tall, and live between 10 to 25 years in the wild. They have a long, prehensile tail and opposable thumbs to help with life high in the rainforest’s canopy. Their tail acts as a fifth appendage -- grasping branches and helping to balance as they move about the trees – while their opposable thumbs help them with many daily tasks from foraging for food to grooming and climbing to using tools.

Habitat & Diet

Capuchins are found across a variety of habitats from rainforest to low land, humid to dry climates. They are native to many countries and islands in South America and the Caribbean, with a range that primarily extends across Brazil, Argentina and Colombia. They are known to adapt to human encroachment and development much better than most primate species, but are most comfortable in areas with a heavy tree canopy, which provides them with shelter, food, a safe mode of transportation, and safe sleeping quarters. On average, an individual monkey will travel up to 2 miles a day within their home range, and most troops have a home range that totals 50-100 hectares of land (124-247 acres). Capuchin monkeys often move from tree to tree without ever touching the ground and can jump up to nine feet in a single leap!

They are diurnal (daytime) omnivores, but more specifically, they are frugivores (fruit-eaters) and insectivores (insect-eaters). Capuchins eat a wide variety of fruits, nuts, seeds, insects, bird eggs and even small vertebrates like lizards and small rodents. Some species have been known to eat up to 95 different plant species. When living near water, capuchins will also feed on shellfish and frogs. They have been observed using rocks to crack open nuts, seeds, shellfish and other prey. Like many other primate species, the capuchin helps to spread plant and fruit seeds throughout its habitat, helping to increase biodiversity and plant regeneration.

Social Behavior

Capuchins are highly social animals and live in large groups or “troops” ranging from 10 to 35 individuals, but often split off into smaller groups for grooming, socialization and foraging. Most species have linear hierarchy, which means both males and females have their own order of dominance, but the alpha male of the troop is always dominant over the alpha female. They are also cooperative in gathering and sharing food within their group. Males are very territorial, and will mark their boundaries using urine to scent, as well as fight to defend their territory and females from other neighboring troops and males looking to challenge the alpha.

Breeding can occur at any time of year, but for most capuchin species, it is most common for females to give birth during the dry season or early rainy season. Gestation is about 6 months long and usually only one infant is born at a time, both for the individual and the group. Females normally give birth every one to two years, and each offspring takes about three to four years to reach full maturity.


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Fascinating Facts

    • The first capuchin monkeys appeared in South America about 16.3 million years ago.
    • They are considered to be the most intelligent of all the New World monkeys, and have been observed using tools like sticks and rocks to access difficult food items like ants, termites and hard shell nuts, similar to Great Apes like gorillas and chimpanzees.

Status In The Wild

Habitat loss and human development affects all wild animals, but capuchin monkeys are known to be among the most adaptable of the lesser primate species and can seemingly go unaffected by major environmental changes. However, despite this flexibility, most capuchin species have experienced a noticeably sharp population decline over the last few decades due to over-hunting and poaching, as well as wild collection for the pet trade and biomedical industry.

According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources), there are a few capuchin species that are actually among the most critically endangered of all lesser primate species. A sad example is the Marcgrave’s capuchin, or Blonde capuchin, which is found primarily in north-east Brazil and has an estimated wild population of only 180 individuals or less.

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