The White-Faced Capuchin Monkey: Costa Rica's Clever Bandit (VIDEO)

Of all the animals I’ve encountered in Costa Rica, the one I remember the most is the bold white-faced capuchin monkey who hopped on my shoulder and swiped my nuts. Victor and I were spending time in Parque Nacional Cahuita, and after an eventful day of watching nature, we decided to take a break and have a snack. As usual, we watched mantled howler monkeys, and the impish little capuchins, one of whom was trying to steal a water bottle from a tourist, grabbing it firmly at the bottom in a human-simian game of tug-of-war. In places where there are few humans, these scamps are probably pretty bold, but they are even more so in areas frequented by tourists.

In these situations, anything they think is food, or that they find intriguing, is fair game.

Image by Michelle Reback, license CC SA 4.0, 2.5, 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Capuchin Monkey See, Capuchin Monkey Bite

The little bandit who stole my nuts came up from behind me and hopped on my shoulders. He grabbed the box of nuts, and I knew better than to fight him. You do NOT want to get bitten by a capuchin monkey. Their teeth are razor-sharp. And monkey bites can be dangerous, putting you at risk for diseases. However, if you keep your food and drink out of sight, they aren’t likely to bother you.

Image license CC SA 3.0 by Kea Giles via Wikimedia Commons

Also, white-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus) are delightful to watch in the wild. They are marvelous acrobats, leaping from tree to tree, and when they are resting, they groom each other quietly. Relaxing in the branches of their forest, they are the picture of utmost serenity.

Capuchin Monkeys Are Not Picky Eaters

When they aren’t snitching your food, these nimble-fingered little pranksters, which are also called the white-headed or white-throated capuchin, eat all kinds of fruit, the New England Primate Conservancy reports. In fact, fruit makes up 70 percent of their diet, with their favorite fruits being figs and mangoes (they’ll have no argument from me there.) And they do something that’s quite valuable for the forest. Capuchins only eat the fleshy pulp and spit out the seeds and fibers.

Which makes me wonder how many capuchin monkeys have inadvertently started their own forests?

Image license CC SA 4.0, 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0 by Michelle Reback via Wikimedia Commons

They also eat flowers, new leaves, the seeds of some plants, and bromeliads (unique plants that grow on tree branches.) Bromeliads are important for many rainforest creatures because they provide drinking water and places for tadpoles (young frogs and toads) to grow. And that also probably benefits capuchins because they are omnivores who love to eat frogs, butterfly and moth caterpillars, as well as other insects, including ants and wasps and their larvae. They are also known to eat birds, eggs, lizards, squirrels, crabs, and mollusks.

These Monkeys Like to Hang Around

Capuchin monkeys are arboreal, meaning they spend their lives in trees. They forage at all levels from the ground all the way up into the canopy and have a prehensile tail that allows them to hang from branches. Expertly sifting through leaves capuchins will tear the bark off trees to search for edibles and even break off dead branches to use as tools to roll rocks over and use stones to crack hard seeds and fruits.

Watch these capuchins search for a good meal:

Victor and I watched bemusedly while the little bandits who stole my snack gently raked through the sand to make sure they got every scrap of nut, eating contentedly while sitting right at our feet. They were cute, even if they were little thieves!

Like many monkey species, capuchins are highly social and live in small groups, which are usually called troops. There can be 40 individuals in one troop, but generally, there are about 16. Also like many highly social primates, each troop has a hierarchy, with a dominant (alpha) male and a few high-ranking females, newcomer males, and youngsters. Most troops are primarily females because they don’t often leave their families.

Safety in Numbers

Males, however, do leave their families, generally when they are around four years old, and usually, change troops about every four years. Sometimes they go it alone, but often other young males accompany them.

This is a useful form of “safety in numbers,” since capuchins sometimes fall prey to harpy eagles and other large raptors, and boa constrictors. And dominant males in other troops often don’t view them fondly and may be very aggressive. Fights between rival troops can be extremely fierce, but it’s thought that these clashes aren’t so much over territory as they are intense competition between males. It’s not uncommon for immigrant males to kill infants to establish dominance, and it’s also not unusual for them to be killed in trying to do so.

The video below shows just how serious these fights can be.


White-faced capuchins are native to Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and along the coastline of Colombia and Ecuador. However, some have even been reported as far south as Argentina, and they have one of the widest ranges of the new world monkeys, AnimalDiversityWeb reports.

Capuchin monkeys reach adulthood at age eight, and males weigh between three and four kg (just over six to eight pounds). Both sexes are polygamous, but among males, the alpha leader has the most opportunities for hooking up, although subordinate males are also allowed to mate as well. However, because alpha males provide protection from predators and rival males from other groups, and that, of course, gives them extra privileges from the troop’s females.

Breeding for capuchins is seasonal, and females are usually fertile January through April. Young capuchins are born every two years, after a gestation period of 160 days.

I count myself as very lucky to get to see wild capuchins. They scamper through the trees with no effort at all, and I have to admit that makes me a little envious. I wish I could get around so easily, and with such grace.

In the video below you can watch a troop of white-faced capuchins who live in Reserva Lomas de Barbudal in Costa Rica.

Featured Image license CC SA 3.0 by Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons

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