Tufted or brown capuchin monkey (Cebus apella)Tufted or brown capuchin monkey

Capuchins have a reputation for being the most intelligent monkeys, since they are very easily taught tricks. This is why they have been trained as movie stars, pickpockets, organ grinders and even to nurse quadriplegic humans. However, such hand-reared monkeys usually become difficult to manage after sexual maturity and end up in sanctuaries as confused "problem" monkeys due to biting someone.

Physical description: Tufted capuchins get their name from the distinctive tuft of dark hair on the tops of their heads. When they are young, they have no such tuft. As juveniles, they grow 2 little tufts that look a bit like devil's horns. When they are fully mature, these may turn into large ridges or they may end up with hairstyles like Elvis Presley, Bob Marley or Gary Glitter! The overall body colour varies from light to dark brown, with the shoulders usually being somewhat lighter. They have a semi-prehensile tail (i.e. they can use it to grip things, but not as well as spider monkeys), the tip of which is usually black, like their hands and feet. Capuchins are approximately 70cm-1m long, half of which is made up of their tail. Their weight varies around 3kg, with males being heavier than females.

Habitat: Brown capuchins live in primary and secondary rainforests as well as in dry lowland areas with savannah or thorn brush in Brazil, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana. However, other subspecies of capuchin are found all over northern South America and into Central America as far as Honduras.

Diet: Wild capuchins eat mainly fruit, but also like seeds, pith, nectar and animal prey including insects, birds, eggs, reptiles, bats and even newborn coati-mundis (racoon-like animals). Capuchins are very clever at finding food, both in the trees and whilst foraging on the ground or on clearings. They have been observed to break nuts open using rocks, with a hard surface as an anvil. This means they know how to use (and choose) tools, which is a very important factor in human evolution and used to be regarded as a purely human skill.

Life history: After a gestation period of 5-6 months, capuchin monkeys give birth to a single offspring. At six months, young capuchins get around on their own and often catch a ride on a juvenile friend's back. They are weaned by the age of about one year and females normally have their first offspring at about four years of age. They usually give birth in October-January and have an oestrus cycle of 18 days. The average life expectancy of captive capuchins is 40-45 years, which means they often spend a lot of time in caged isolation if they misbehave in a household environment after they reach sexual maturity.

Tufted or brown capuchin monkey Associations: Tufted capuchins associate with white-fronted capuchins, white-nosed bearded sakis, buffy sakis, black-headed uacaris and often travel with common squirrel monkeys. The latter is advantageous to the capuchins in terms of the multitude of warning signals made by squirrel monkeys, which capuchins seem to understand. This association is advantageous for the squirrel monkeys as well, since capuchin monkeys are particularly good at remembering the location and fruiting season of various food trees. Squirrel and capuchin monkeys spend a lot of time together at Monkeyland too, although the advantages are not the same as in the wild. Capuchins at Monkeyland have also been found to play with vervet monkeys, spider monkeys and gibbons.

Social structure: Capuchins live in groups of between 8-14 individuals with equal numbers of males and females. Young males often form subgroups whilst the ladies look after their offspring. Younger males or females like to follow mothers around and insist on babysitting, which is normally allowed by the age of three months. This is beneficial since juveniles learn to rear offspring. In tufted capuchin groups, there is always a dominant male who tends to be solitary. Alpha males in other capuchin species, on the other hand, form friendships with lower ranking males. Large cohesive groups are safer, since they include more eyes and ears to detect birds of prey, which are the main capuchin predators. Brown capuchin groups occupy a home range of 25-40ha in the wild, whereas at Monkeyland two groups live in harmony within a 12ha forest. The lack of aggression between and within these groups is presumably due to the abundance of food available on our feeding platforms.

Territorial marking: A strange behaviour officially called "urine-washing" can be observed in capuchins, which means they urinate on their hands and feet and then proceed to rub it all over themselves and their territory (capuchin pet owners are particularly appreciative of this instinct where sofas and kitchen surfaces are concerned). Females sniff at males to figure out whether they are sexually mature.

Vocalisations: Capuchins have a wide repertoire of sounds, which are quite familiar monkey sounds to most people since capuchins are the number one Hollywood performers. Their vocalisations include the cute "ooh-ooh-ooh" used by youngsters to express despair and the satisfied "uhm" sound often heard during feeding sessions involving their favourite treats. The low, quiet "Um-Um" means "please groom me" in English, whilst the loud, high-pitched "Eh-Eh" means "I'm going to bite you if you don't leave me alone!" Capuchins emphasise their vocalisations with accompanying grimaces including repeated eyebrow-raising, nervous grinning and endearing lip puckering. They also have alarm calls for large raptors, which are their biggest enemy in the wild.

Mating: Tufted capuchin females work quite hard to attract the attention of their choice mate, sometimes they run after the male with their tail curled coyly between their legs whilst grinning and whining hilariously. The male plays hard to get and only copulates once a day. During copulation males mount females from behind. After a pairing, the male will guard the female from other males for several days.

Other behaviour: For short distances, capuchins can walk on two legs whilst carrying food or tools. They can even hold another item with their prehensile tail! Wild tufted capuchins like to sleep in palm trees, whereas at Monkeyland we have found that many favour the 128m suspension bridge, which results in lots of bridge cleaning duties for us humans!

Conservation: Although tufted capuchins are hunted and their territory is being destroyed at a staggering rate, the IUCN have classified them as "lower risk/least concern" since they are adaptable. The subspecies Cebus apella margaritae, however, is restricted to the Island of Margarita in Venezuela and is assessed as "critically endangered" (IUCN). Capuchins are the monkeys used in most movies and are also the traditional organ grinder monkeys. Many have lived in appalling conditions to entertain humans. Although they are extremely social animals, performing capuchins are usually separated from members of their own species and forced to live amongst humans in the most unnatural of circumstances. They are also exploited more than any other primates for the pet trade, and most capuchins at Monkeyland were previously kept as pets. People bring them to sanctuaries worldwide since they only realise too late that capuchins make terrible pets, especially after reaching sexual maturity.

Did you know? Capuchins like to rub millipedes on themselves, which presumably acts as an insect repellent. This was observed both in the wild and at Monkeyland.


Di Fiore, A. and Campbell, C.J. (2007) The Atelines: Variations in Ecology, Behaviour and Social Organisation. In: Campbell et al. (eds.), Primates in Perspective. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ottoni, O.B. and Mannu, M. (2001) Semi-free ranging tufted capuchins (Cebus apella) spontaneously use tools to crack open nuts. International Journal of Primatology, 22(3), 347-358.

Rylands, A.B., Bampi, M.I., Chiarello, A.G., da Fonseca, G.A.B., Mendes, S.L. & Marcelino, M. 2003. Cebus apella. In: IUCN 2006. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. www.iucnredlist.org. Downloaded on 16 July 2006.

www.birdsofeden.co.za Information supplied by:
Lara Mostert