Archive for the ‘Atelines’ Category

ResearchBlogging.org Some good news to make your holidays a little happier: a new population of critically endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkey (Oreonax flavicauda) was discovered recently!


To Oreonax or to Lagothrix–that is the question!

The yellow-tailed woolly monkey is a member of the Atelidae family (howler and spider monkeys) within its own unique genus, Oreonax. This taxonomic decision has come under some criticism of the legitimacy by using Oreonax as a genus compared to the genus of its closer relatives, Lagothrix, based on a parsimony analysis of incomplete taxonomic sampling on available skulls (Matthews and Rosenberger 2008). For the purposes of taxonomy, I’d be more likely to agree with Matthews and Rosenberger’s detailed analysis and recommendation of Lagothrix; however, for conservation purposes, I would absolutely recommend the purpose of using Oreonax from a flagship species perspective.

As Mace (2004) argues, government policies tend to favor unique species–especially the species which tend to indicate a problem of decline. As it just so happens, the yellow-tailed woolly monkey is critically endangered and, unfortunately, a member of one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. Both of these elements combined alone probably make an appealing case for the yellow-tailed woolly monkey to receive a lot of conservation attention. And if that’s the case, then why bother with making it a genus all its own? Simply put: we still don’t know a lot about the yellow-tailed woolly monkey.

Even though the yellow-tailed woolly monkey was discovered in 1812 by Alexander von Humboldt (who initially thought it was a species of howler monkey), there was not enough information to classify the primate properly until 1963 (DeLuycker 2007). Additionally worth noting as far as available information goes on this species, there has also been no long-term study on this species since 1982  (DeLuycker 2007).

As it stands, with our given knowledge about the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, it would certainly not be harmed to be considered its own unique genus for conservation purposes. Although it is certainly a case of splitting a genus, it is largely based on parsimonous morphological analysis as opposed to genetic reasoning.


The geographic range of the yellow-tailed woolly spider monkey (Oreonax flavicauda). Image from WikiMedia Commons.

Oreonax flavicauda: getting to know you, getting to know all about you

As previously stated, there is still quite a bit of information unknown about the yellow-tailed woolly monkey. But here’s what we do know about it:

The yellow-tailed woolly monkey is endemic to Peru, and largely resides in the montane cloud forests on steep gorges and ravines around 1,500-2,600 m with canopy heights of 20-25 m (Shanee et al. 2008). As such, as an adaptation to its colder climate, the primate is characterized by having thicker, darker fur with a copper hue and a yellow coloring on the ventral side of the prehensile tail tip (DeLuycker 2007). Hence, the “woolly” and “yellow-tailed” name. The range of temperatures in this climate can range anywhere from, on average, a low of 8˚C (46.4˚F) to a high of 25˚C (77.0˚F) (Leo Luna 1980). Like other Atelids, the yellow-tailed woolly monkey is folivorous, but will also consume fruits, insects, lichens, buds, bulbs, flowers, epiphyte roots, and petioles (DeLuycker 2007; Leo Luna 1980;1987; Butchart et al. 1995).

Yellow-tailed woolly monkey (Oreonax flavicauda) via Primate Info Net (Credit to N. Shanee)

A lot of the listed foods, to me, suggest a large diet on subsistence, fallback foods as opposed to a higher-quality item like fruit as these items are more readily available. However, and this surely plays a role in the threatened status of the primate, much of the dietary resources are at risk for being lost due to mining (Shanee & Shanee 2010). Other additional threats to the yellow-tailed woolly monkey include: deforestation due to road building, hunting pressures, climate change, and habitat stress (DeLuycker 2007; Shanee & Shanee 2010).


So what about the new kids on the block?

The fact that we’ve found an extra population is inspiring: given that we don’t know a terrible lot about this species, it’s entirely possible there are more populations out there. The important thing is that we are able to keep the populations consistent with the 50/500 rule posed by Franklin (1980) and Soule (1980).

We know there are more than 250 individuals left in the wild, which gives them a fighting chance to beat the temporary causes above the 50 individuals needed for continuing heterozygote genes (in order to avoid deletrious alleles) in the proximate, temporary period of time. However, ultimate, long-term factors suggest a dismal future for the yellow-tailed woolly spider monkey if population trends continue to decline; 500 individuals would be more likely to ensure a rapid rate of heterozygosity to avoid a natural selection culling based on homozygotic traits.

I’m not entirely convinced that we can pull these guys back from the brink based on 250+ individuals alone, but the closer we get to 500, the better the chances are.



Butchart, S.H.M., Barnes, R., Davies, C.W.N., Fernandez, M., Seddon, N. (1995). Observations of two threatened primates in the Peruvian Andes. Primate Conservation, 16, 15-9.

DeLuycker, A.M. (2007). Notes on the Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey (Oreonax flavicauda) and its Status in the Protected Forest of Alto Mayo, Northern Peru, Primate Conservation, 22, 41-47

Franklin, I.R. (1980). Evolutionary changes in small populations. In: Soule M., Wilcox, B.A. (eds) Conservation biology: an evolutionary-ecological perspective. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, 135-149.

Leo Luna, M. (1980). First Field Study of the Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey Oryx, 15 (04), 386-389 DOI: 10.1017/S0030605300028908

Leo Luna, M. (1987). Primate conservation in Peru: a case study of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey. Primate Conservation, 8(122).

Mace, G. (2004). The role of taxonomy in species conservation, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359 (1444), 711-719 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2003.1454

Matthews, L., & Rosenberger, A. (2008). Taxon combinations, parsimony analysis (PAUP*), and the taxonomy of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 137 (3), 245-255 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20859

Shanee S., Shanee N., & Maldonado A.M. (2008). Distribution and conservation status of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey Oreonax flavicauda in Amazonas and San Martín, Perú. Neotropical Primates 14: 115–119.

Shanee N. & Shanee S. (2010). “Community Based Conservation for the Yellow Tailed Woolly Monkey, Peru”. http://neoprimate.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/NPC_2nd_year_report.pdf.

Soule, M. (1980) Thresholds for survival: maintaining fitness and evolutionary potential. In: Soule M., Wilcox, B.A. (eds) Conservation biology: an evolutionary-ecological perspective. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, 151–169.

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Today I began my week-long research project at the Como Zoo on the orangutans they have there. And now, more than ever do I seethe that I couldn’t complete my research project in the field.

The Como Zoo is impressive for a free zoo; it has Sumatran Orangutans (an adult male and female, adolescent(?) female, and a juvenile male), two Western Lowland Gorillas, Geoffroy’s Spider Monkeys, and a few other primates (Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth not included though it’s located in the primate exhibit with the White-faced Saki Monkey and Geoffroy’s Tamarins). But it’s a free zoo at the mercy of tax dollars and donations–and it shows in the exhibits and unfortunately, the animals.

While I was there, I noticed the juvenile male orangutan performing stereotypic behavior (saluting). After alerting the zookeeper about the behavior (who had no idea what stereotypic behavior was), I began to pay attention to the environment of the surroundings even closer. I wasn’t paying attention the first time the saluting behavior happened, but the second was very shortly after a child started pounding on the glass and screaming.

And then, it got me wondering. How many of these stereotypic behaviors are really brought on by the crowds that come to be entertained and (maybe) learn about the animals? Certainly, the manner in which the primates were reared has an effect (Mallapur & Choudhury 2003), but surely, that can’t be all as in this particular case, the juvenile was born at the Como Zoo and is still reared by his birth mother. Housing may also play a role (Mallapur 2005), but I think it’s also important to consider the role of the crowds as well.

I think at this point, one of the best things the Como Zoo can do for its primates is to make a sign for incoming guests and let them know of things that upset the primates–I may be too optimistic, but I want to believe most people don’t want to inconvenience the animals and would be considerate if they had the knowledge that some of their actions may negatively stress out the animals.

I know I have a lot of friends who have no idea what I mean, so here’s what I’d probably put on that sign:

          Please don’t do the following behaviors (it makes the primates upset!):

            – Smile or make eye contact. They see this as a threat!

            – Tap the glass or scream; it startles the primates!

            – Make noises to rile the monkeys–this stresses them out.

I don’t expect parents or kids to know better–hell, without my training at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center or in my classes, I wouldn’t have known these behaviors were bad. But here’s hoping that someone reads this and goes to the zoo next time with a little better etiquette for both the animals and the zoo-goers.

Mallapur, A. & Choudhury, B.C.  (2003).  Behavioral abnormalities in captive non-human primatesJournal of Applied Welfare Science, 6(4), 275-284.

Mallapur, A.  (2005).  Managing primates in zoos:  Lessons from animal behaviourCurrent Science, 89(7), 1214-1219.

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Costa Rica and Me.

In a little less than a month, I’ll be leaving to go to the sunny, blissful paradise of Costa Rica, quite literally, almost  a tourist nation with the majority of its revenue coming from tourism. It makes sense, seeing as Costa Rica is a fairly safe country.  There are many rankings for which (considering only Latin America, at least,) Costa Rica takes the gold, most specifically: Happy Planet Index in 2009 which also took the first worldwide, Environmental Performance in 2008, Press Freedom and Democracy in 2007, Travel and Tourism Competitiveness in 2008, and Life Satisfaction Index (2006-2007) in 2008. So with the compilation of all those firsts over a relatively short amount of time, I can deduce that if those rankings are worth any of their salt: the Costa Ricans are a pretty happy little tourist country with great environmental standards.

Sounds like my kind of country. Even moreso when you consider there are primates that live in Costa Rica, which will be the purpose of my visit. I am going through the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy at the La Suerte Biological Field Station in order to study primate behavioral ecology for one whole glorious month. And I could not be more excited.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous: I’ll be meeting people from all over the country that I’ve never met before, I’ll be living in conditions I’m extremely not used to, I won’t be able to have immediate contact with friends and family, and I’ll have to get used to not being able to access the internet on a whim. There will be bees and snakes, and I will potentially ruin many pairs of underwear and pants as a result. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled to be attempting those things.

The most anxious part of the experience is creating my own research. I would really like it if I could come out and be able to publish something–something that I can contribute to the world’s knowledge. Not to mention, use it to give my future career a jumpstart and have even more reason for grad schools to select me as their student. But as it stands, I’m having an exceptionally hard time trying to think of anything original, or at least, maybe even worthwhile? Whenever I come up with a topic, I immediately rush to Google Scholar and–bam. Already done, or at least variations thereof.

Another factor to consider is that there are only three species of primates (IUCN 2007) living in the area I’ll be in. There are Mantled Howler monkeys (Allouatta palliata), White-Faced Capuchins (Cebus capucinus), and Geoffroyi’s Spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi). This isn’t a bad thing because it narrows down the literature of the species I have to examine, but it does make it a little harder considering there are only three and I don’t know the visibility/commonality of any of them in that given population area.

Regardless, until then, I will be anxiously awaiting my experience with the monkeys.

IUCN, SSC, Primate Specialist Group.  (April 2007).  Primates of Costa Rica.  http://www.primate-sg.org/costa.rica.spp.htm.

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