Wildlife Central America, Central America Squirrel Monkeys


There may be less than 4,000 red-backed squirrel monkeys left in the wilds of Central America, restricted to a very limited area, though appearing locally abundant. The main cause of decline is habitat loss and deforestation due to agricultural clearing of land and tourism development. Also these monkeys were once captured and traded as pets. One protected population does exist in Costa Rica in a Corcovado reserve, where on our Costa Rica and Panama cruise we stop in search of these fascinating monkeys as well as other wildlife of the Central American tropics.

The red-backed squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstediiis) is also known as the black-crowned Central American squirrel monkey, and occurs in the forests and cultivated areas of Panama and southern Costa Rica where we travel by ship on our Costa Rica and Panama cruise. It is a small, slender monkey with a long tail and much of their body fur is yellow brown in color with a pale yellow belly. The red-backed squirrel monkey Saimiri oerstedii can be distinguished from its sister species S. sciureus (much more numerous in population) because the crown of S. oerstedii is covered with black fur and has golden-red colored fur on its back, both lacking in the sister species. Adult squirrel monkeys weigh between 500 and 1,100 g (1.1 lbs to 2.4 lbs) and are typically 225 to 295 mm long (almost 9 to 12 inches) with tails added between 370 and 465 mm (14.5 to over 18 inches). In general, males are larger than females.

The red-backed squirrel monkey is very social and prefers to live in groups, with sometimes as many as 70 individuals in one troop. They are not aggressive and neither males nor females appear to be dominant. This monkey forages by investigating every leaf, nook, and cranny for small animals, the diet consisting mainly of invertebrates, fruit (almost half their diet), berries, seeds and flower nectar. Interestingly enough, these monkeys also recognize the leaf-tents made by some fruit-eating bats and attack these tents to extract and eat the bats. Large feeding groups create a flurry of activity and they are often accompanied by mixed-species flocks of birds (including double-toothed kites and tawny-winged woodcreepers).

Females are sexually mature at about 1 year old, but males reach sexual maturity between 4 and 6 years old. The birth rate in the genus Saimiri is about one birth per year (although there is no information specifically for S. oerstedii). Breeding can occur year round and females give birth to one young after a gestation period of 152 to 170 days, and the young depends on its mother for one year.

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