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11 Mischievous Facts About Capuchin Monkeys

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You may not recognize the word capuchin, but you’ve probably seen these spunky little monkeys: They’ve starred in innumerable TV shows, movies, and commercials. But there’s more to them than on-screen fame. They poke each other in the eye as a bonding gesture. They throw rocks at their monkey crushes. Read on to find out more about these remarkable critters.

1. THEY’RE NAMED AFTER THE CAPUCHIN FRIARS—AND SO IS CAPPUCCINO.

In 1525, a Franciscan monk named Matteo da Bascio broke with his order's tradition. He wanted to return to the ways of St. Francis and live a more austere, hermit-like life. Da Bascio helped found a group called the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, whose members are often called Capuchin monks. They wear a brown pointed hood called a capuccino.

Those friars with the brown hoods were familiar to the European explorers who visited the forests of the new world. When these explorers encountered capuchins in the wild, they couldn’t help but think that those monkeys with hood-like tufts of brown hair looked an awful lot like the Capuchin friars. So, they named them after the Capuchins. The beverage known as cappuccino was probably also named after these coffee-colored robes.

2. ONE SPECIES WAS ONLY RECENTLY REDISCOVERED.

Male golden capuchin in São Paulo Zoo. Image credit: Miguelrangeljr via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Capuchins are a group of small monkeys with long tails that can wrap around tree branches. Their fur comes in a variety of coffee-like shades, from black (like the black-horned capuchin) to caramel (like the golden-bellied capuchin) to cream (like the white-headed capuchin). They fall into two broad categories: tufted and untufted. All are native to Central and South America.

Way back in 1648, a naturalist named Georg Marcgrave published a description [PDF] of a blonde, long-haired capuchin species, but he didn’t collect a specimen, so its identity remained a mystery. More than 350 years later, in 2006, scientists rediscovered Marcgrave’s monkey species in the wild. Dubbed the blonde capuchin (or Sapajus flavius), it’s critically endangered, with just 180 mature individuals left.

3. THEY’RE FAMOUS ON TV.

With their cute faces and charming antics, capuchin monkeys have appeared in all sorts of performances. Victorian organ grinders had capuchins that danced and collected coins. These monkeys were even outfitted in little jockey outfits and made to ride racing greyhounds. More recently, they’ve appeared in movies, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

But the most famous capuchin—at least, for Gen Xers—might be Marcel, Ross’s pet monkey from the TV show Friends. Marcel was played by a female monkey named Katie. She has since gone on to appear in other TV shows, movies, and commercials, and she’s the unofficial mascot of the Los Angeles Angels baseball team.

These appearances have prompted people to want pet capuchins. But capuchins are complex and wild, and they can become aggressive, which is why many animal welfare organizations urge people not to keep them as pets. They also get lonely, because …

4. THEY’RE HIGHLY SOCIAL.

Frans de Waal via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.5

Capuchins live in groups. They navigate their social worlds with a complex set of facial expressions and gestures [PDF]. High-ranking males are usually the fathers of all the group’s babies. But they carefully avoid inbreeding; once the dominant male’s daughters grow up, they’ll only mate with lower-ranking males. Capuchins also seem to have a sense of fairness and they avoid individuals who they perceive to be selfish. But before you start drawing too many connections between their behavior and ours, you should know that …

5. THEY POKE EACH OTHER’S EYES TO REINFORCE BONDS.

Professor Susan Perry of UCLA has been studying white-faced capuchins in the jungles of Costa Rica for 25 years. It’s grueling work, she says; “I’m always wet, chewed on, or stung.” But her hard work has paid off. She and her team have observed some amazing monkey business.

Capuchins often invent new behaviors—Dr. Perry calls them traditions—that spread through the group. One of them is, well, shoving your finger in someone else’s eye. Other traditions include sniffing each other’s hands and sucking on tails, fingers, and ears. Capuchins even bite a tuft of hair from another’s face and pass it around with their mouths. This might all be about reinforcing social bonds [PDF]. Just don’t try it with your coworkers.

6. THEY USE TOOLS.

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By now we know that other apes, such as chimpanzees, use tools. But thanks to capuchins, we know that other monkeys do it too. Capuchins were the first non-ape primates that we observed using tools in the wild. Bearded capuchins (look at this male’s handsome beard) skillfully crack nuts using a hammer-like rock and an anvil. Other species use tools, and even the recently rediscovered blonde capuchin has gotten into the act. It fishes termites out of their mounds with a special technique that includes stick rotation and tapping the nests.

7. THEY WASH WITH PEE.

Capuchins and some other New World monkey species do something called “urine washing.” They pee on their hands and use it to wash their feet. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but it may be a social cue. Capuchins may urine wash to calm down aggressive friends. Males may do it to appease females or convey their sexual excitement. It may also be about improving a monkey’s grip on slippery trees by making its hands and feet … stickier. Eww.

8. SOME FEMALE CAPUCHINS THROW ROCKS AT CUTE MALES.

Females in a group of bearded capuchins have been observed throwing rocks at males in an apparent attempt to initiate sex. Scientists think that one female might have started the trend, and then other females copied her. See an adorable video of this interaction here.

9. THEY EAT FLOWERS, FROGS, AND MUCH MORE.

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Capuchin diets are pretty varied. They consume both plants and meat. If the season’s right, they’ll dine on plant parts such as fruit, seeds, leaves, and flowers. Their animal prey includes birds, oysters, lizards, frogs, and more. They’ve even been observed eating another species of monkey.

10. ENORMOUS EAGLES EAT THEM.

For a capuchin, life isn’t all fun, games, and eye-poking. Several predators lurk in the forest. Ocelots (small nocturnal wild cats) will prey on them. Snakes are also a threat—though they risk being thwacked by a club-wielding capuchin. But the most impressive predator might be the harpy eagle.

This amazing raptor has claws longer than a grizzly bear’s and a wingspan up to 6.5 feet. They’re deft flyers, even when they’re hunting in dense forests. And they’re patient; they’ll wait hours—sometimes, nearly a day—for the perfect moment to strike.

Female harpy eagles are twice as big as males and they’re better able to take down large prey such as monkeys. They’ll even grab howler monkeys that weigh up to 14 pounds. Other prey items include sloths, porcupines, anteaters, and young pigs and deer.

11. TIMES ARE TOUGH FOR CAPUCHINS.

Miguelrangeljrvia Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s not clear exactly how many capuchin species there are, but the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists 17. Of those species, more than half are in serious trouble. Three are listed as endangered and two as near threatened. Four of them are critically endangered, which is the most severe category for extinction risk before “extinct in the wild.” Threats to these monkeys include habitat loss and hunting for meat and for the pet trade.

Let’s protect our capuchin cousins so that they’ll keep cracking open nuts, poking each other in the eye, and throwing rocks at boys for generations to come.

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Big Questions
Should You Keep Your Pets Indoors During the Solar Eclipse?
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By now, you probably know what you’ll be doing on August 21, when a total solar eclipse makes its way across the continental United States. You’ve had your safety glasses ready since January (and have confirmed that they’ll actually protect your retinas), you’ve picked out the perfect vantage point in your area for the best view, and you’ve memorized Nikon’s tips for how to take pictures of this rare celestial phenomenon. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something … and it’s probably the thing that's been right under your nose, and sitting on your lap, the whole time: your pets.

Even if you’ve never witnessed a solar eclipse, you undoubtedly know that you’re never supposed to look directly at the sun during one. But what about your four-legged family members? Shouldn’t Fido be fitted with a pair of eclipse glasses before he heads out for his daily walk? Could Princess Kitty be in danger of having her peepers singed if she’s lounging on her favorite windowsill? While, like humans, looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse does pose the potential of doing harm to a pet’s eyes, it’s unlikely that the thought would even occur to the little ball of fluff.

“It’s no different than any other day,” Angela Speck, co-chair of the AAS National Solar Eclipse Task Force, explained during a NASA briefing in June. “On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not going to do it either. It is not a concern, letting them outside. All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. So I think that people who have pets want to think about that. I’m not going to worry about my cat.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian, author, and founder of pawcurious, echoed Speck’s statement, but allowed that there’s no such thing as being too cautious. “It’s hard for me to criticize such a well-meaning warning, because there’s really no harm in following the advice to keep pets inside during the eclipse,” Vogelsang told Snopes. “It’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. But in the interest of offering a realistic risk assessment, the likelihood of a pet ruining their eyes the same way a human would during an eclipse is much lower—not because the damage would be any less were they to stare at the sun, but because, from a behavior standpoint, dogs and cats just don’t have any interest in doing so. We tend to extrapolate a lot of things from people to pets that just doesn’t bear out, and this is one of them.

“I’ve seen lots of warnings from the astronomy community and the human medical community about the theoretical dangers of pets and eclipses, but I’m not sure if any of them really know animal behavior all that well," Vogelsang continued. "It’s not like there’s a big outcry from the wildlife community to go chase down coyotes and hawks and bears and give them goggles either. While we in the veterinary community absolutely appreciate people being concerned about their pets’ wellbeing, this is a non-issue for us.”

The bigger issue, according to several experts, would be with pets who are already sensitive to Mother Nature. "If you have the sort of pet that's normally sensitive to shifts in the weather, they might be disturbed by just the whole vibe because the temperature will drop and the sky will get dark,” Melanie Monteiro, a pet safety expert and author of The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out, told TODAY.

“If [your pets] have learned some association with it getting darker, they will show that behavior or at a minimum they get confused because the timeframe does not correspond,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet Hospital told CBS Philly. “You might put the blinds down, but not exactly when the dark is coming but when it is still light.” 

While Monteiro again reasserts that, "Dogs and cats don't normally look up into the sun, so you don't need to get any special eye protection for your pets,” she says that it’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions. So if you’re headed out to an eclipse viewing party, why not do your pets a favor and leave them at home. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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