Geographic Distribution and Habitat
The red-capped mangabey, also known as the collared mangabey or the white-collared mangabey, is an Old World monkey native to the Atlantic coast of West and Central Africa, occupying the Atlantic forest coastal regions of Cameroon, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Nigeria.
Swamp, mangrove, and valley forests are the primary habitats of these monkeys who forage, sleep, and hide from their natural predators (leopards and eagles) in the lower levels of the forest. But these monkeys are also comfortable scaling heights up to 100 ft (30 m).
Red-capped mangabeys are considered an arboreal-terrestrial species; that is, these primates spend time both in the trees and on the ground. Although they are mostly arboreal, if a quick escape from a predator is necessary, red-capped mangabeys will drop to the ground and flee.
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
The red-capped mangabey is considered a relatively large monkey, with males being larger than females. Head-to-body length in males is 18.5 to 26 in (47 to 67 cm); average weight is 20 to 22 lb (9 to 10 kg). Head-to-body length in females is 18 to 24 in (45 to 60 cm); average weight is 16.5 to 19 lb (7.5 to 8.6 kg).
Like all mangabeys, the red-capped mangabey has a tail that is longer than its body, adding another 20.5 to 31 in (52 to 79 cm).
Wild red-capped mangabeys live about 30 years, and the longest lifespan recorded for a captive red-capped mangabey is 46 years. This species is a popular zoo inhabitant.
Relating to, occupied with, or fond of feasting, drinking, and good company.
Genus (plural, genera):
A biological classification, or ranking, of living beings that includes a group(s) of species that are structurally similar or “related” to one another through evolution.
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The red-capped mangabey may be one of nature’s most “professorial” or distinguished-looking primates. A tufted, chestnut-red fur cap sits atop the crown of the head; on either side of the head are prominent, dark ears; luxurious tufts of white fur feather out from the primate’s cheeks; and a wide, white fur collar drapes over the shoulders to the chest. (The primate’s common name and alternative names are easily taken from its appearance!) Perfectly painted white eyelids make the monkey’s brown eyes appear to shine and give dramatic contrast to an elongated black muzzle. White hairs sparsely decorate the underside of the chin. Slate-gray fur covers the red-capped mangabey’s body, and the primate’s underside is a lighter shade. Hands and feet are dark; the tail is also dark, with a white tip.
Fruits and nuts are the preferred foods of red-capped mangabeys. Their powerful teeth and jaws help them crack hard nut shells or bite into thick-skinned fruits, something that guenon monkeys, who share the red-capped mangabeys’ habitat, cannot do. So, more food for the red-capped mangabeys! Their large cheek pouches allow them to store food for snacking on later. They supplement their diet with mushrooms, stems, roots, leaves, flowers, nectar, insects, spiders, and the occasional bird’s egg.
Behavior and Lifestyle
As diurnal creatures—meaning that they are most active during the daytime, and sleep at night—red-capped mangabeys forage through their treed habitat, traveling together. They are excellent jumpers and move easily through the forest, using their long, slender tails for balance. As they walk, they often hold their tail in an arc, the white tip hovering just above their head.
These primates appear to take seriously the adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day; they begin foraging early in the morning, often before sunrise, and fill their generous cheek pouches to capacity. They use their teeth and hands to tear bark from trees to locate bugs and spiders who might be hiding beneath.
Red-capped mangabeys are more likely to be seen on the ground during the dry season, when they must descend their treed habitat in search of alternative food sources. They sometimes venture onto nearby fruit plantations, an action that jeopardizes their safety.
Cercocebus is Greek for “tail monkey.”
The species is sometimes referred to as the “four-eyed monkey,” because of the red-capped mangabey’s dramatic white eyelids.
The red-capped mangabey is a monotypic species; that is, that no other species belongs to the species’ genus, Cercocebus. Formerly, the red-capped mangabey had been included as a subspecies of the sooty mangabey.
To add a little confusion with alternative names, the white-naped mangabey (Cercocebus lunulatus), a native of Ghana who happens to be Endangered, is also known by the red-capped mangabey’s alternative name: white-collared mangabey.
Red-capped mangabeys live in social groups (known as “troops”) of 12 to 23 individuals, led by an alpha male. Groups include both males and females, who live peaceably with one another. To indicate peaceful intentions, an individual will present his or her rear end to a higher-ranking individual.
Even when encountering other red-capped mangabey troops, these interactions are usually friendly and some members might swap places and join the other’s group. The abundance of food sources helps to facilitate the convivial mood of these encounters.
Upon reaching adulthood at about 5 years of age, males leave their birth groups in a quest to find a troop where they can assume the position of alpha male. Unlike some primate species, male red-capped mangabeys do not live together in bachelor groups. Instead, a male will live alone until he finds or creates another troop where he can be the alpha.
Females remain with their birth groups, forming strict hierarchies with one another to help avoid conflicts. They are the glue that holds the group together.
Red-capped mangabeys are expressive primates; no poker faces here. Their facial animations are underscored by the white hair that spikes from beneath their dark chin. Lifting and lowering their conspicuous white eyelids is only one dramatic example of their body language. Additional social cues include deliberate movements with their tail. To strengthen their bonds with one another, they engage in social grooming.
Vocalizations include a repertoire of cackles, twitters, barks, grunts, shrieks, and something that biologists call the “whoop-gobble.” Because red-capped mangabeys may not be able to see each another in the dense forest, these acoustic signals and calls are vital in their communication.
Equipped with large throat sacs that amplify their vocalizations, red-capped mangabeys earn the distinction as rather noisy primates. The throat sacs of adult male red-capped mangabeys are especially large, giving them a booming voice. Males will shriek to alert members of his troop of potential danger. To tell intruders to keep away, he will bark, twitter, or grunt. (Adult females might join in this chorus.) Males will also shake tree branches and evoke a threatening facial grimace to intimidate intruders.
The adult male’s whoop-gobble conveys specific information: the whoop gets the attention of other mangabeys in the area, and the gobble announces the male’s position in the trees—this precise call can be heard up to 1,000 yd (1 km).
Red-capped mangabeys have no defined breeding season, at least so far as researchers can determine (much of what researchers know about red-capped mangabey reproduction comes from observing captive individuals.) Both males and females reach sexual maturity between 5 and 7 years of age.
A female mangabey’s buttocks swells when she is ready to breed, giving an adult male a distinct visual cue.
After a gestation period of about 5 1/2 months, a female gives birth to single infant. Babies are born cloaked in soft fur, with their eyes open. As newborns, they cling to their mother’s belly. (One anecdotal piece of research asserts that newborns are born with such an overwhelming instinct to cling to their mothers that they often grab her fur as they are being born.)
When they are little older, babies ride on their mother’s back as she moves through the forest. Infants are considered weaned between 7 and 10 months of age; however, they stay close to their mom until she gives birth to a new sibling, in about 1 year and 3 months.
Red-capped mangabeys have the double distinction of being pollinators, thanks to their penchant for licking nectar from flowers; and also seed dispersers—helping their forested habitat to regenerate as they disseminate seeds, from the many plants they eat, through their feces.
With the most current population assessment in January 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature raised the red-capped mangabey’s conservation threat from Vulnerable (assessed in 2008) to Endangered (IUCN, 2019). According to scientists, the species has suffered a more than 50-percent decline in the past 27 years (three generations).
Habitat loss and hunting have conspired to negatively impact the future of these primates. Research shows that red-capped mangabeys are already locally extinct in some isolated patches of swamp forest within Nigeria’s Niger delta, and they are extremely rare in other areas.
Forest habitats have been razed and transformed into farmland. Farmers regard those monkeys who venture onto their land (previously, red-capped mangabey habitat) as “crop thieves” and pests—and will kill the monkeys. Along with other large primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas, red-capped mangabeys are among the first of the larger mammals to “disappear” from forests close to human settlements.
According to the IUCN, “This species lives in proximity to the Atlantic coast, where the forests have been greatly modified for agriculture; industrial agricultural plantations (bananas, oil palm, rubber) and smallholder farming have now replaced much of the original forest.
“The causes of [the species’ population] decline have not ceased, are unlikely to be reversible, and will continue into the foreseeable future. With the human population growing at a rate of 2.7% annually (i.e. the human population will double in less than 30 years), there will be an 18% increase in the number of people living in this region by 2028. As a consequence, both bushmeat hunting pressure and habitat loss (to agriculture) will continue to increase throughout the geographic range of C. torquatus. More forest will be converted to the type of habitat that is highly unsuitable for these monkeys (monocultures of food crops and rubber).
Intensely hunted for their flesh (known as “bushmeat”), red-capped mangabeys are easy to locate because of their loquacious (chatty), noisy nature.
After the 2008 assessment, scientists speculated that if conservation actions were not enacted and enforced, the red-capped mangabey’s status would be heightened to Endangered within next decade. This has occurred as predicted. This places them only one category away from the Critically Endangered conservation status of the Tana River mangabey, who scientists fear will soon become extinct.
The red-capped mangabey is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between governments whose goal is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival; and as Class B of the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. However, as is often the case with endangered species, laws created to protect them are largely ignored and difficult to enforce.
Although the species occurs within protected areas, including Loanga and Mayumba National Parks in Gabon and Conkouati-Douli National Park in Congo, illegal poaching within these wildlife parks threatens the monkeys’ safety. Red-capped mangabeys who live outside of these areas, in the expansive geographic range that the species occupies, have no protection at all.
Mangabeys are included in a Species Survival Plan (SSP), implemented by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to maintain genetic diversity in zoo populations.
Written by Kathleen Downey, September 2017. Conservation Status updated July 2020.