spider monkey

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Spider monkeys are among the most skilled climbers in the world.

spider monkey 1

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With its long limbs and tail, this species leaps from branch to branch in a graceful display of aerial control. It's smart, loving, and quick, but also loud and aggressive. The entire genus is threatened with extinction due to hunting and habitat loss. Considerable efforts have been made to preserve the last populations of spider monkeys.

3 Spider Monkey Facts

  • Although spider monkeys usually walk on four legs, they have adapted very well to an arboreal lifestyle. Their movement among the trees is a real spectacle. They don't climb up and down trees carefully. Instead, they jump or fall from one tree to another.
  • Their curly tails have small, hairless tips and grooves, somewhat like fingerprints.
  • Spider monkeys reproduce well in captivity. Many zoos and conservation organizations have their own breeding programs to keep the animals alive.

For more information on spider monkeys, click here.

A brown spider monkey gazes into the distance by the beach in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
Spider monkeys are good at jumping from tree to tree.

©Jason Wells/Shutterstock.com

scientific name

This primate belongs to the genus of animals with the scientific name Ateles . The word roughly translates to "incomplete" in Greek and refers to a monkey's shortened or incomplete thumb.



Spider monkeys belong to the family of apes , which also includes howler monkeys and hairy monkeys. This is the only primate in the world with a complete tail.

Woolly monkeys, howler monkeys and spider monkeys are just a few of the animals that make up what is known as the New World monkey group. As the name suggests, these monkeys evolved and multiplied in the New World of America. Compared to Old World monkeys in Asia and Africa, they are smaller, have flatter snouts, and have a different bone structure. New World and Old World monkeys last shared a common ancestor about 40 million years ago, when their evolutionary lineages split and went their separate ways.

Longest Tail: Black Spider Monkey
Spider monkeys are the only primates in the world with a complete tail.

© Nick Fox/Shutterstock.com

evolution and history

The ancestors of spider monkeys are thought to be extant species from the Pleistocene period. Fossils dating back millions of years suggest they existed in Cuba and Spain.

There are different theories about the evolution of spider monkeys, with some suggesting that they are most closely related to the hairy spider monkey ( Brachyteles ), and that their unique musculoskeletal system developed after breaking away from the wooly monkey ( Lagothrix ) population in South America. However, this theory is not supported by fossil evidence.

Modern molecular evidence supports the theory that during the middle and late Miocene, New World monkeys in the family Apeidae were divided into three types: spider monkeys, long-haired spider monkeys and long-haired monkeys.

The evolutionary path of spider monkeys is difficult to trace because fossils provide inconclusive evidence, such as the fact that the shape and size of elements in their teeth may be the result of their diet rather than an adaptation.

7 species of spider monkeys

While scientists differ on the exact number and names of spider monkey subspecies, the general consensus is that the genus contains seven extant species, most of which are named for their color or country of origin, and seven subspecies.

  • Red-faced spider monkey ( Ateles paniscus ): Also known as the Guyanese spider monkey or the red-faced black spider monkey, this species lives in the rainforests of northern Brazil, Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, and Venezuela. It is threatened by hunting and habitat loss and is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
  • White-fronted spider monkey ( Ateles belzebuth ): Found in the northwestern Amazon in Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, and Brazil, this endangered species is also known as the white-fronted or hairy spider monkey. The Peruvian, brown and white-cheeked spider monkeys were once considered subspecies of this monkey, but are now classified as separate species.
  • Peruvian Spider Monkey ( Ateles chamek ): As the name suggests, this species, also known as the black-faced black spider monkey, lives in Peru, as well as Brazil and Bolivia, where its main habitat is lowland forest, occupying the canopy and sub-canopy.
  • Brown spider monkey ( Ateles hybridus ): This critically endangered species is known for its pale blue eyes, an unusual color for a spider monkey. Also known as the variegated spider monkey, it makes its home in the forests of Colombia and Venezuela. While some scientists believe there are two subspecies of this monkey ( Ateles hybridus hybridus and Ateles hybridus brunneus ), molecular studies have not supported this, so no subspecies have been assigned.
  • White-cheeked spider monkey ( Ateles marginatus ): Found in the Brazilian Amazon, this species has been classified as endangered due to population declines due to habitat loss from the expansion of soybean agriculture in the region. Some indigenous people consider this spider monkey a delicacy, so it also faces the threat of being hunted.
  • Black-handed spider monkey ( Ateles geoffroyi ): There are at least five subspecies of this monkey, also known as the black-handed spider monkey and the Central American spider monkey. The population is spread across Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, and Mexico. Endangered due to habitat loss, hunting, and being captured for sale as pets.
  • Black-headed spider monkey ( Ateles fusciceps ): Some primatologists believe this monkey is a subspecies of Geoffroy's spider monkey, while others disagree. It is found in Colombia, Ecuador and Panama, has two subspecies and is listed as endangered due to hunting and habitat loss.
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There are five subspecies of Jeffrey's spider monkeys:

  • Crested spider monkey ( Ateles geoffroyi grisescens ): Native to Panama and possibly in a small area of Colombia, this monkey has long tawny fur.
  • Mexican spider monkey ( Ateles geoffroyi vellerosus ): This critically endangered subspecies is native to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
  • Yucatan spider monkey ( Ateles geoffroyi yucatanensis ): The status of this monkey as a subspecies of the Geoffrey spider monkey is disputed, with some classifying it as a junior synonym for the Mexican spider monkey. Deforestation of forest habitats in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras (due to livestock farming, palm oil development, and mining) also known by the Mayan name "Ma'ax" has led to their decline and fragmentation of their populations.
  • Nicaraguan spider monkey ( Ateles geoffroyi geoffroyi ): This monkey makes its home in Nicaragua and adjacent areas of Costa Rica, including the Guanacaste peninsula, and is considered by some to be a separate subspecies.
  • Magnificent Spider Monkey ( Ateles geoffroyi ornatus ): Also known as Splendid Spider Monkey, Common Spider Monkey, and Red Spider Monkey. Other names for this monkey include the Panamanian spider monkey and the Azzurro spider monkey, which were once considered separate subspecies.

There are two subspecies of black-headed spider monkeys:

  • Brown-headed Spider Monkey ( Ateles fusciceps fusciceps ): This monkey lives in Ecuador's humid tropical and subtropical forests at elevations between 330-5,580 feet. Scientists who don't classify the black-headed spider monkey as a separate species consider this monkey and the Colombian spider monkey a subspecies of Geoffrey's spider monkey.
  • Colombian spider monkey ( Ateles fusciceps rufiventris ): This monkey can be identified by its black body and some white on the chin. Its habitats are forests, moist forests, and cloud forests at altitudes up to 6,600-8,200 feet.
The Mexican spider monkey is a subspecies of the Geoffroy spider monkey.

© Alex Lee / CC BY 2.0 – License

appearance

These animals are the largest of any small New World monkey weighing between 13 and 24 pounds. That's about the weight of a small domestic dog, but with a much longer tail. Overall, males tend to be slightly larger than females.

Other important characteristics of spider monkeys include incredibly long arms, flattened noses, eye rims and coarse hair, usually a combination of black, white, brown or tan.

spider monkey mother and baby
Spider monkeys are widely known for their flattened noses, eye rims and coarse hair.

©Stan Bullett/Shutterstock.com

spider monkey graspable tail

One of the most prominent and important features of this primate is the huge graspable tail. Despite (or even because of) the almost non-existent thumb, the tail provides the primary means by which to cling to branches and grasp objects. The tail itself is much larger than the body, reaching between 20 and 40 inches. By comparison, the body stretches about 14 to 26 inches from head to hip.

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Spider monkey grabbing tail

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Behavior

These creatures are highly social animals that come together to form large armies of a few related individuals. These groups tend to be small, but groups of about 50 monkeys have been observed congregating together. These troops divide into smaller groups to forage and sleep throughout the day, especially if food is scarce, but they are usually close enough to help each other fend off threats. Feeding usually starts in the morning and continues throughout the day, while they sleep in trees at night. The team does not appear to have a defined structure, but it is believed that a single female plans group feeding for the day.

Males tend to remain in a group their entire lives, while females leave the group to seek fortune elsewhere. Since many of these male monkeys are related to each other, the bond between them is particularly strong, while the bond between females is relatively weak. This is actually the opposite behavior of many monkey species, where the female is usually the one who stays in the group permanently.

To communicate with each other, these primates make a variety of sounds, including barks, howls, squeals and a horse-like hiss. This is combined with a variety of different poses and facial features. For example, spider monkeys can display fierce aggression designed to scare off threats and intruders. They do this by shaking branches with their legs and making screeching noises. However, a lot of it is just bluff because it has no real power to back it up. If this strategy doesn't work, then the troops may disperse and flee to divert the predator's attention. Grooming is often an important aspect of social behavior in primates, but less so in spider monkeys, possibly due to the smaller thumbs. Instead, they scratch themselves with their hands and feet to remove dirt and parasites.

These creatures are believed to be the most intelligent of the New World monkeys. Their brains are larger than those of closely related howler monkeys, at least among monkeys of similar size. This intelligence helps them with social interactions and foraging behavior. This greatly improves their chances of survival in the wild by remembering the exact location of the many different fruits they regularly eat.

Spider monkey walking on the grass
Spider monkeys are highly social animals.

© Nick Fox/Shutterstock.com

Habitat

This primate occupies a large swath of land between the Amazon rainforest, Central America and parts of Mexico. Most of the seven spider monkey species are concentrated in some parts of Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. Jeffrey's spider monkeys are the northernmost species, consistently found along the central coast of Mexico. Each species generally prefers to inhabit the middle layers of tropical rainforests and other woodlands, often near rivers and streams.

Spider monkey on the tree
Spider monkeys typically live in tropical rainforests and other woodlands.

©Kjersti Joergensen/Shutterstock.com

diet

The diet of these creatures consists mainly of fruits, nuts and flowers. This is supplemented with spider and insect meat. Spider monkeys spend most of the day foraging in groups. It will forage among the trees, looking for hidden food. Some monkeys may eat the fruit of more than 100 different plants in their lifetime.

For a full analysis of spider monkey diets, be sure to read "What Do Spider Monkeys Eat?"

What do spider monkeys eat (1)
Spider monkeys spend most of the day foraging in small groups.

© AZ-Animals.com

Predators and Threats

The main predators are pumas, jaguars, snakes, and occasionally eagles. The arboreal lifestyle offers some level of protection against predators, but some of these animals are adept at climbing trees, and the raptors will sometimes catch an unsuspecting spider monkey from above. The spider monkey is more vulnerable to predation if it wanders onto the forest floor. It has few natural defenses other than the ability to climb.

These creatures are traditionally hunted as a food source. Their loud and noisy behavior often makes them easy to spot in dense forests. But habitat loss from logging and agriculture is the main threat to the remaining populations of spider monkeys. This has wiped out much of the natural forest on which it depends, fragmenting the remaining population. Spider monkeys are also susceptible to several diseases. The susceptibility of spider monkeys to malaria makes them a valuable study subject for human researchers.

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Mountain lion standing on thick branch
One of the predators of spider monkeys is the cougar, which has the ability to climb and prey on them in trees.

©Geoffrey Kuchera/Shutterstock.com

Reproduction, Babies and Longevity

This animal has a breeding season throughout the year. A female monkey has a lot of freedom to choose which male she wants to mate with. However, males can be very aggressive, sometimes killing the unrelated children of females they are currently mating with.

The mother will hold the unborn baby for up to 232 days of gestation. After giving birth, she often isolated herself from the rest of the unit. Because this birth and development process is so laborious for the mother, she only has one child about every two to five years. She rarely has twins. Monkey babies will depend on their mothers for their feeding and protection for about a year after birth. She is solely responsible for caring for her offspring without any help from the other males and females in the team. As she forages, the young cling to her back, wrapping their tails around her own or around her body for protection.

Due to the extra developmental time required to learn social cues and other valuable information, this animal takes a relatively long time to mature. Breeding begins after about five years of age. The typical lifespan of a spider monkey is 20 to 27 years. In captivity, they are largely free from the stress of predators, disease, and hunting, and they can live to be 40 years old.

spider monkey mother and baby
Baby monkeys depend on their mothers for their care and protection for the first year or so after birth.

© Eric Gevaert/Shutterstock.com

population

This primate is the most endangered and unstable primate in the world. According to the IUCN Red List, probably the most comprehensive source on the conservation status of animals in the world, five of the seven species are threatened with extinction, and the brown spider monkey is critically endangered. Compared with other species, red-faced spider monkeys are in relatively good health. It is only listed as endangered. It's not entirely clear how many adult individuals remain in the wild, but numbers appear to be declining across the board. Protecting existing forests and reclaiming old habitats is critical to their continued survival.

spider monkey in zoo

Because of their loud behavior and playful, energetic nature, these animals are popular in many zoos across the United States. Geoffroy's black-handed spider monkey is a major attraction at the Los Angeles Zoo and the St. Louis Zoo. Other species of spider monkeys can be found at the Alexandria Zoo in Louisiana, the Beardsley Zoo in Connecticut, the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens, the Boise Zoo, the Nashville Zoo, the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas, and the Boise in Lansing, Michigan. Te Park Zoo find, and many others. Most of these zoos work with wildlife conservation organizations to protect spider monkeys and restore their populations. This is because they are relatively easy to reproduce in captivity.

money in man's hand
Many zoos work with wildlife conservation organizations to protect spider monkey populations.

© iStock.com/alexandragl1

See all 289 animals that start with S

Spider monkeys describe any New World monkey species belonging to the genus Ateles. It is characterized by long limbs, a deft tail, a male-centric social structure and high intelligence.

Spider monkeys are long and slender with a mix of white, black and brown fur. This resemblance to the spider inspired its current nickname, for obvious reasons. It is relatively large in size compared to many other New World monkey species.

Spider monkeys spend most of their lives in dense tropical rainforests. They are well adapted to this arboreal lifestyle, so their habitat varies little from region to region. This also makes them vulnerable to habitat loss.

Spider monkeys are omnivorous, eating mostly plants (such as fruits and nuts) and meat (such as insects and spiders).

Six of the seven species are endangered or critically endangered. Other species are prone to extinction.

Spider monkeys belong to the animal kingdom.

Spider monkeys belong to the phylum Chordate.

Spider monkeys belong to the class Mammalia.

Spider monkeys belong to the Atelidae family.

Spider monkeys belong to the order Primates.

Spider monkeys belong to the genus Ateles.

Spider monkeys are covered in hair.

Predators of spider monkeys include humans, eagles and jaguars.

The average number of babies a spider monkey has is 1.

Spider monkeys live in the tropical jungles of South America.

The scientific name of the spider monkey is Simia Paniscus.

Spider monkeys can live between 15 and 27 years.

Spider monkeys can travel at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.