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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September 5, 2016 - 8:00am
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