Get to know this precocious small primate

Order: Primate

Family: Cebidae

Genus: Cebus

SpeciesC. capucinus

Range: Native to Central and South America. Found in wet and dry forests and mangroves in and along the coasts of Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, even as far as Argentina. 

IUCN Red List Status:  Least Concern—at relatively low risk of extinction

How to Spot Them: Distinct black cap atop head; black body hair with white hair on upper chest, forearms, and around face; slender, prehensile tail about the length of their body; adults can reach up to 8.6 lbs., 18 inches (not including tail)

Guests aboard National Geographic Quest learn about white-faced monkeys on the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica. Video by David Pickar.

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You may not know their name, but you’ve definitely seen their notorious little white faces on the big and small screen. Stealing the spotlight in movies and TV shows like Pirates of the Caribbean, Night at the Museum and Friends (and in pre-digital days as the organ grinder’s sidekick), white-faced capuchins are celebrities in their own right. But there’s much more to these mischievous monkeys than their Hollywood persona.           

White-faced capuchins were first discovered in the 15th century when European explorers visited the forests of the New World. Capuchins earned their name thanks to the dark caps of hair atop their heads which quickly called to mind Capuchin monks in their deep coffee-colored hooded robes. (Cappuccinos, Italian for “little hood,” owe their name to the friars too). Also known as white-headed or white-throated, these monkeys are the only one among eight species of capuchins to sport jet-black hair framed by white (sometimes yellowish) hair around the face and upper chest.  

Like many humans, white-faced capuchins are diurnal, active in the daytime and sleeping at night. Swinging jauntily from branch to branch and traveling in troops of 20 or more, these arboreal creatures are typically easy to spot when exploring the Panama and Costa Rica rainforests—not to mention very entertaining to watch! But don’t let their playfulness fool you: as adept tool users and efficient communicators, they are the most intelligent among all New World monkeys. Their intelligence also shines outside the forest: white-faced capuchins have been trained to assist paraplegics by fetching food and books, combing hair, and much more.

Learn more about this deceptively cute monkey.