Geographic Distribution and Habitat
White-throated capuchins, also known as Colombian white-throated capuchins, white-faced capuchins, and white-headed capuchins, are New World monkeys native to the rainforests of western Colombia, western Ecuador, and Panama. White-throated capuchins are commonly seen throughout Panama’s national parks. In South America, the species is found in the extreme northwestern strip between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains in Colombia and northwestern Ecuador.
Adaptable to a variety of forest habitats, white-throated capuchins live in mature (primary) and secondary forests that include evergreen, deciduous, mangrove, and montane. They prefer primary forests, however, with a lot of old growth or advanced secondary forests.
The monkeys inhabit home ranges between 79 and 213 acres (32 and 86 hectares). They forage between 0.62 and 1.86 miles (1 and 3 kilometers) a day, averaging 1.2 miles (2 kilometers).
Size, Weight, and Lifespan
Considered a medium-sized monkey, white-throated capuchins weigh up to 8.6 pounds (3.9 kg). The body length of adults is between 13.2 and 17.8 in (33.5 and 45.3 cm), excluding their prehensile tail, which is longer than their body at 22 inches (55 cm).
Male white-throated capuchins are nearly 30 percent larger than their female counterparts.
In the wild, these monkeys live 20 to 30 years. Their lifespan in captivity is up to 55 years.
White to pale yellow hair frames an expressive light tan-colored or pinkish face that is mostly bare of fur, suggesting the visage of a pensive old man. Shoulders and upper arms of white-throated capuchins are draped in their white or pale yellow coats, contrasting the remainder of their bodies which are cloaked in black hair. A black fur cap sits atop the crown of this monkey’s head.
The white-throated capuchin might be the most widely known monkey. Although they may not know the species’ name, most people readily recognize this monkey as the organ grinder’s sidekick. Perched atop this street musician’s shoulder, the monkey assistant cajoles passersby with its antics for monetary donations.
What Does It Mean?
Relating to a mountainous region of relatively moist, cool upland slopes below timberline dominated by large coniferous (evergreen) trees.
The tail of an animal that has adapted to be able to grasp or hold objects.
Also termed old-growth forest, virgin forest, or primeval forest—a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance and thereby exhibits unique ecological features and might be classified as a climax community, an ecological community in which populations of plants or animals remain stable and exist in balance with each other and their environment.
A forest that has regrown after a major disturbance, such as fire or timber harvest, but has not yet reached the mature state of primary forest.
Visit the Glossary for more definitions
Omnivores, white-throated capuchins eat mostly fruits (up to nearly 70 percent of their diet from 95 species of fruit) and insects. Favorite fruits include figs and mangos. They prefer fruits that are ripe and test for ripeness by smelling, tasting, and poking each piece of fruit. But they eat only the pulp and juice, and spit out the seeds and fibers. Flowers, young leaves, seeds of certain plants, and bromeliads (flowering plants with generous, overlapping leaves) provide additional sustenance. Bromeliads are also an implemented water source; water that gets trapped inside the leaves provides the monkeys with drinking water.
Insect prey includes beetle larvae, butterfly and moth caterpillars, ants, wasps, and ant and wasp larvae. However, white-throated capuchins also feast on larger prey, including birds, frogs, lizards, and squirrels. Bird eggs, crabs, and mollusks are snack items.
Behavior and Lifestyle
White-throated capuchins are an arboreal species, meaning that they spend most of their time in trees where they forage at all levels of the forest, walking on all four limbs (quadrupedal locomotion). They are also great leapers and climbers. Their prehensile tail allows them to hang from branches, supporting their body weight while they forage. More than any other New World monkey, white-throated capuchins will descend from trees to forage on the ground. Foraging techniques include searching through leaf debris, stripping bark from trees, breaking dead tree branches to use as tools for rolling over rocks, and using stones to crack open and mash hard fruits. White-throated capuchins sometimes destroy acacia trees as they rip through the branches to get at residing ant colonies.
They are a diurnal species; all that foraging is conducted during the daylight hours. At night, they sleep.
White-throated capuchins are among the most intelligent of New World monkeys. In addition to their ability to fashion tools for foraging, they have been known to use sticks as weapons against snakes. Captive white-throated capuchins have been observed using sticks to drag food closer to them within their enclosures. Playful and inquisitive, white-throated capuchins enjoy taking things apart. This behavior is more frequently observed in captive settings but also occurs in the wild.
Additionally, white-throated capuchins appear to have an innate understanding of herbal medicine. Wild white-throated capuchins will rub parts of certain plants into their hair. Scientific conjecture is that this self-care is a deliberate action to ward off ticks and other parasites. It may also provide inflammatory relief or serve as a form of scent marking.
The white-throated capuchin takes its name from the hooded garment worn by the religious order of Capuchin friars, whose hooded robes drape in “cowl neck fashion” around their shoulders.
White-throated capuchins are “gracile” capuchin monkeys in the genus Cebus, differentiated from the “robust” capuchins, like tufted capuchins, in the genus Sapajus in 2012.
Daily Life and Group Dynamics
Highly social primates, white-throated capuchins live in family groups known as troops. Troops can include 20 to 40 individuals, but the average troop size is 16 members, who include alpha (dominant) males, related females, newcomer (“immigrant”) males, and offspring. Females make up about three-quarters of a troop, likely due to their predisposition to remain with their family.
Males typically leave their natal (birth) group at age 4 and thereafter change troops about every 4 years. They sometimes migrate alone, but more often migrate with the company of related males from their birth group. This “safety in numbers” is important as they roam the forest, not only from potential predators, who include the harpy eagle, other raptors, and boa constrictors, but also from attacks by male white-throated capuchins from other troops, who are not receptive to immigrant males and may take violent action against these interlopers.
Both male and female white-throated capuchins form alliances within their genders. Coalitionary aggression, when two or more individuals join together in a coalition for the purpose of protecting themselves from or attacking a target, is common to both sexes.
Encounters with white-throated capuchins from other troops, whether occurring in overlapping home ranges or while traveling, are often hostile. Disputes are thought to be less about defending territory and more about intense competition between males and preserving the members of a troop, particularly its infants, whom immigrant males often kill in a quest for dominance.
Dominant males are the primary aggressors in intergroup encounters and are the protectors of their troop’s infants; they have been known to kill their opponents.
The dynamics within white-throated capuchin troops include a range of social bonding activities. Grooming (more common between females) and resting against one another for body contact (more common in males) are two examples. A curious example of social bonding is “hand sniffing,” where one monkey sticks his or her fingers in another monkey’s nose, and then the other monkey reciprocates. This activity can last for several minutes and invokes a trance-like expression on the monkeys’ faces. White-throated capuchins will also suck on one other’s fingers and tails for long periods of time. In another activity, individuals take turns in inserting an object into his or her mouth so another monkey can attempt to pry the object out.
Social play is especially important for juveniles, for whom wrestling with one another is not just a fun pastime but an activity that teaches them about social bonds and boundaries. They learn other essential behaviors and skills from observing a troop’s adults.
White-throated capuchins’ innate knack for finding food makes them popular with other monkey species, including Geoffroy’s spider monkeys, who sometimes travel with the capuchins in hopes of locating their next meal. The two species even engage in mutual grooming, but aggressive interactions sometimes occur. “Affiliative associations” also include non-primate animal species such as the white-lipped peccary, a wild hog-like animal. Additional opportunists include several bird species.
Communication among white-throated capuchins includes a repertoire of loud calls. Barks and coughs are used to warn a troop of impending danger; these vocalizations vary depending on the threat. The monkeys use softer calls in conversation with one another. Facial expressions and scent marking are also used. A practice known as urine marking, in which the monkeys rub urine on their feet, is thought to be a form of olfactory signal.
Reproduction and Family
Dominant males have long tenures and mate with multiple females, leading to many half-siblings and to a high degree of inter-relatedness within a troop.
As reward for helping dominant males defend the troop against threats, subordinate males are permitted to mate with the daughters of dominant males. Rare among New World primates, dominant males tend to avoid breeding with their own daughters.
Females give birth every 27 months, usually to a single infant but occasionally to twins. Most births occur during the dry season from December to April, after a five- to six-month gestation period. Mothers act as the primary caregivers, carrying their babies on their backs for the infants’ first six weeks of life. At age three months, infants are able to move independently. They are considered weaned between 2 and 4 month of age. As with other capuchins, white-throated capuchins mature slowly. Males attain reproductive maturity at 7 to 10 years old. Females are considered reproductively mature at age 4; however they usually give birth for the first time at age 7. Seven years old is the average age when they become independent.
A key species to rainforest ecology, the white-throated capuchin disperses seeds, from the great variety of fruit that it eats, through its feces throughout its habitat. They also help preserve the ecosystem by eating insects that would otherwise destroy trees and by pruning trees so that the trees generate more branches and additional fruit.
Conservation Status and Threats
The white-throated capuchin is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, 2020), appearing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Their populations are decreasing.
White-throated capuchins are resilient in adapting to a variety of habitats, however the species remains susceptible to habitat degradation, deforestation, being hunted for food, and capture for the pet trade. Because white-throated capuchins can be carriers of diseases, including malaria, when captured for the exotic pet trade, these diseases can be transmitted to humans. Most capuchins found in zoos are bred in captivity, however; few are captured from the wild.
Although habitat loss is certainly a major threat, the species is also hunted in several areas as a crop pest and for the pet market. In Panama, local people hunt them to prevent crop raiding, eliminating several groups near to protected areas. They are sometimes kept as pets.
Death from predator attacks and injuries sustained in fighting other capuchins are common mortality factors in the wild.
Because of the species’ impressive intelligence, white-throated capuchins have long been exploited for human use. Besides being a sidekick to the organ grinder, white-throated capuchins have been exploited for human entertainment through their roles in movies and television.
The species is also used in laboratory experiments at primate research centers.
A more utilitarian exploitation of white-throated capuchins is as personal assistants to paraplegics and quadriplegics. The monkeys are specifically trained to perform simple daily activities on behalf of these physically limited human primates.
The white-throated capuchin 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.
Written by Kathleen Downey, July 2016