The capuchins are the group of New World monkeys classified as genus Cebus. The range of the capuchin monkeys includes Central America and South America as far south as northern Argentina. Cebus is the only genus in subfamily Cebinae.
The word capuchin derives from a group of friars named the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, an offshoot from the Franciscans, who wore brown robes with large hoods covering their heads. When explorers reached the Americas in the 15th century they found small monkeys who resembled these monks and named them capuchins.
When the scientists described a specimen (thought to be a Golden-bellied Capuchin) they noted that: “his muzzle of a tanned color,… with the lighter color around his eyes that melts into the white at the front, his cheeks…, give him the looks that involuntarily reminds us of the appearance that historically in our country represents ignorance, laziness, and sensuality.
The scientific name of the genus Cebus, on the other hand, comes from the Greek word kêbos, meaning a long tailed monkey.
A Capuchin’s body, arms, legs, and tail are all darkly (black or brown) coloured, while the face, throat, and chest are white coloured, and their heads have a black cap. They reach a length of 30 to 56 centimetres (12–22 in), with tails that are just as long as the body. They weigh from 3 to 9lbs with brains of mass 35–40 g.
Like most New World monkeys, capuchins are diurnal and arboreal. With the exception of a midday nap, they spend their entire day searching for food. At night they sleep in the trees, wedged between branches. They are undemanding regarding their habitat and can thus be found in many differing areas.
Potential predators include jaguars, cougars, jaguarundis, coyotes, tayras, snakes, crocodiles, and raptors, although there has only been one published observation of a predator taking a capuchin in the wild. The main predator of the Tufted Capuchin is the Harpy Eagle, which has been seen bringing several capuchins back to its nest.
The diet of the capuchins is more varied than other monkeys in the family Cebidae. They are omnivores, eating not only fruits, nuts, seeds, and buds, but also insects, spiders, bird eggs, and small vertebrates. Capuchins living near water will also eat crabs and shellfish by cracking their shells with stones.
Capuchins live together in groups of 10 to 35 members. These groups consist of related females and their offspring, as well as several males. Usually groups are dominated by a single male, who has primary rights to mate with the females of the group, though the White-headed Capuchin groups are led by both an alpha male and an alpha female. Mutual grooming as well as vocalization serves as communication and stabilization of the group dynamics. These primates are territorial animals, distinctly marking a central area of their territory with urine and defending it against intruders, though outer zones of these areas may overlap.
Females bear young every two years following a 160 to 180-day gestation. The young cling to their mother’s chest until they are larger, when they move to her back. Adult male capuchins rarely take part in caring for the young. Within four years for females and eight years for males, juveniles become fully mature. In captivity, individuals have reached an age of 45 years, although life expectancy in nature is only 15 to 25 years.
Capuchins are considered the most intelligent New World monkeys and are often used in laboratories. The Tufted Capuchin is especially noted for its long-term tool usage, one of the few examples of primate tool use other than by apes. Upon seeing macaws eating palm nuts, cracking them open with their beaks, these capuchins will select a few of the ripest fruits, nip off the tip of the fruit and drink down the juice, then seemingly discard the rest of the fruit with the nut inside. When these discarded fruits have hardened and become slightly brittle, the capuchins will gather them up again and take them to a large flat boulder where they have previously gathered a few river stones from up to a mile away. They will then use these stones, some of them weighing as much as the monkeys, to crack open the fruit to get to the nut inside. Young capuchins will watch this process to learn from the older, more experienced adults.
During the mosquito season, they crush up millipedes and rub the remains on their backs. This acts as a natural insect repellent.
When presented with a reflection, capuchin monkeys react in a way that indicates an intermediate state between seeing the mirror as another individual and recognizing the image as self. Most animals react to seeing their reflection as if encountering another individual they don’t recognize. An experiment with capuchins shows that they react to a reflection as a strange phenomenon, but not as if seeing a strange capuchin.
Easily recognized as the “organ grinder” or “greyhound jockey” monkeys, capuchins are sometimes kept as exotic pets. Sometimes they plunder fields and crops and are seen as troublesome by nearby human populations. In some regions they have become rare due to the destruction of their habitat.
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