Species: C. 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)
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.
Among the most social of animals, white-faced capuchins have some unusual ways of bonding. Eye poking is the most unique—no other monkeys in the world are known to do it. They’ll insert their fingers right up to the knuckle into each other’s sockets. Other playful trust games include sniffing hands, sucking on tails and fingers, and passing around tufts of their hair.
Keepers of the Trees
Thanks to their frugivorous, or fruit-intensive, diet, these monkeys play a key role in seed and pollen dispersal. Since forest loss has reduced the populations of larger seed-dispersing primates, it’s hoped that more resilient species like the capuchin can step in to help influence forest regeneration and balance the ecosystem.
A New Stone Age
While many animals use sticks, the use of stones and rocks as tools remains rare. In fact, white-faced capuchins are one of only four non-human primates observed exhibiting this clever behavior. They use stones to crack open nuts, snail shells, and other food items, placing them on pitted anvils so the meal inside doesn’t roll out of reach.
They say love hurts—that can be especially true for male capuchin monkeys! Studies have shown that females flirt by throwing stones at potential mates who have caught their eye, or sometimes run up and touch them before darting away. The reason isn’t clear but it’s likely because female capuchins don’t have any physical indicators to let males know when they’re most fertile.
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