Capuchin monkeys hail from the tropical forests of South America, Central America, and sometimes Argentina. Famously known as “organ grinders,” capuchins are a natural sight in movies and television shows and also popular pets among humans.
If you’re interested in learning about the fascinating capuchin, this guide will tell you everything you need to know, from characteristics to etymology, animal intelligence, and behavior to whether you should have a capuchin as a faithful pet.
About Capuchin Monkeys
The capuchin is a small New World monkey that favors dry forests and wet lowlands. The animal has a long-established relationship with people going back centuries, and capuchins have always appeared in television shows and films, especially for the organ grinder role.
Boasting self-awareness and great intelligence, capuchins can undergo training to understand new concepts.
In the wild, capuchins eat an omnivorous diet and live in groups. A pet capuchin monkey will likely be on its own.
The Etymology of Capuchins
So where does a name like a capuchin come from, anyway?
It dates back to the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, a friar group from the 15th century noteworthy for their large brown robes.
Later, explorers from Portugal who migrated to the Americas discovered capuchin monkeys, and they couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the primates and the Franciscan friars. That led to these explorers calling the monkeys capuchins.
The capuchin belongs to the genus Cebus. That scientific name comes from a Greek term that translates to the long-tailed monkey, kebos.
Classification of the Capuchin Monkey
The Capuchin is part of the Animalia kingdom, Mammalia class, and Primates order in the family Cebidae and Cebinae subfamily.
From there, capuchins split into two genera, the aforementioned Cebus genus (consisting of Gracile capuchins) and the Sapajus genus (including Rough capuchin monkeys).
Let’s take a closer look at the individual species in each genus.
Sapajus Genus Capuchins
- Sapajus xanthosternos or Golden-bellied capuchin
- Sapajus robustus or Robust tufted capuchin, aka the Crested capuchin
- Sapajus nigritus or Black capuchin (including the Sapajus nigritus nigritus and the Sapajus nigritus cucullatus)
- Sapaus cay or Azaras’s capuchin
- Sapajus libidinosus or Black-striped capuchin (including Sapajus libidinosus paraguayanus, Sapajus libidinosus pallidus, Sapajus libidinosus libidinosus, and Sapajus libidinosus juruanus)
- Sapajus flavius or Blond capuchin
- Sapajus apella margaritae or Margarita Island capuchin (including Sapajus apella tocantinus and Sapajus apella peruanus)
- Sapajus apella macrocephaulus or Large-headed capuchin
- Sapajus apella fatuellus or Colombian brown capuchin
- Sapajus apella apella or Guiana brown capuchin
- Sapajus apella or Tufted capuchin, aka the Brown capuchin or Black-capped capuchin
Cebus Genus Capuchins
- Cebus aequatorialis or Ecuadorian white-fronted capuchin
- Cebus malitiosus or Santa Marta white-fronted capuchin
- Cebus versicolor or Varied white-fronted capuchin
- Cebus cesare or Rio Cesar white-fronted capuchin
- Cebus leucocephalus or Sierra de Perija white-fronted capuchin
- Cebus brunneus or Venezuelan brown capuchin
- Cebus kaapori or Ka’apor capuchin
- Cebus castaneus or Chestnut weeper capuchin
- Cebus olivaceus or Guianan weeper capuchin
- Cebus albifrons or Humboldt’s white-fronted capuchin
- Cebus unicolor or Spix’s white-fronted capuchin
- Cebus cuscinus or Shock-headed capuchin
- Cebus yuracus or Maranon white-fronted capuchin
- Cebus imitator or Panamanian white-faced capuchin aka Panamanian white-headed capuchin
- Cebus capucinus or Columbian white-faced capuchin aka Columbian white-headed capuchin
Physical Characteristics of Capuchins
Next, look at some physical characteristics that make identifying capuchin monkeys easier.
Fully mature capuchin monkey populations reach sizes of 16 to 22 inches long.
As a testament to their agility, capuchins are incredibly lightweight animals, weighing three to nine pounds. That’s 1.36 to 4.9 kilograms.
Capuchins have fur that covers their heads, bodies, arms, legs, and tails with an exposed face that’s pink or white. The fur grows in different consistencies, developing darker and shorter on the back and lighter and longer elsewhere.
Primarily, capuchins have a dark brown coat, but you’re likely to see areas of tan or cream around the animal’s shoulders, neck, and face.
A capuchin’s tail measures 17 inches long on average. Yes, their tail can be longer than the monkey itself!
Capuchin Intelligence – How Smart Are They?
Nonhuman primates are often renowned for their intelligence. Just because the capuchin isn’t the largest monkey on the block doesn’t mean this animal lacks smarts.
Of all the New World monkeys, capuchins rest atop the list as the brainiest. That’s why when researchers need lab monkeys, they’ll often choose the tufted monkey or other species of young capuchins.
Their intelligence is also one of the reasons they are a part of the entertainment industry and trained as service animals, as they can easily adapt.
Capuchins have a strong capacity to learn, not only from human owners or trainers but from other animals the monkey witnesses in the wild.
For example, if a capuchin sees a macaw, a New World parrot, feasting on palm nuts with their beaks, the capuchin monkeys react by similarly ripping off a nearby fruit and ingesting the juice. The capuchins intelligently select the ripest fruit to make it easier to consume.
There’s more! The capuchin will drink the juice and leave the remaining nut and the rest of the fruit until the fruit turns brittle. Then they will use the fruit as a boulder rather than a food source!
We humans have the gift of self-awareness, but what about monkeys? Evidence suggests it could be so!
In studies where capuchins saw themselves in the mirror, their reaction suggested the monkey saw itself and not just an image of another monkey. That’s the standard reaction of an animal when it sees its reflection. They assume it’s another animal but not themselves.
To make the study more conclusive, researchers also showed the capuchin some monkeys of the same sex behind a translucent barrier. One of the two monkeys was familiar to the capuchin, and the other was not.
When looking at their own reflection, the level of eye contact of both male and female monkeys strongly suggests that capuchins can tell the difference between seeing themselves and another monkey.
The Mind Theory
If capuchins have self-awareness, do they also have a theory of mind? This means the monkey could understand another animal’s thinking.
As fascinating as this sounds, we just don’t know yet. Capuchins could possess a theory of mind, but more research is needed before we can say so conclusively.
Capuchin Monkey – An Exotic Pet?
Although not the most conventional choice, some people choose to keep capuchins as exotic pets.
Keeping a pet capuchin monkey is legal in many states across the United States, including Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Wyoming, Arkansas, Indiana, West Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Ohio, Nevada, Florida, and North Carolina.
Later, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of keeping capuchins as a pet, so make sure you don’t miss it.
The Habitat and Distribution of Capuchins
As mentioned, capuchin habitats include tropical forest environments in northern Argentina, South America, and Central America.
On the Pacific coast, the animal lives in drier deciduous forests, and on the Caribbean coast between Panama and Costa Rica, they’re found in the wetter lowland forests.
Rainforests, mountain forests, and low-lying forests suit these animals the best since the capuchins have abundant food and can easily access shelter when needed.
Besides the aforementioned regions, capuchins live in Peru, Paraguay, and Honduras.
Capuchins live in trees since they’re expert climbers and can use that ability to escape the grasp of predators.
More than just taking from the land they claim, capuchin monkeys also give back. How you ask?
When they leave fecal waste or deposit seeds after eating, both can encourage the growth of new plants. The capuchins later have even more resources for hiding!
Capuchin Monkey Behavior and Temperament
Next, let’s assess the behavior and temperament of the fascinating capuchins.
These non-human primates spend the bulk of their time foraging for food to ensure their survival and that of their families.
An arboreal animal is one that spends most of its time in the trees, a classification that fits the capuchin to a tee.
Capuchins follow a schedule like most humans, in that they’re diurnal. This means they’re awake during daylight hours and sleep at night. During the day, the monkeys will feed and then retire to their trees (if they’re not there already) to rest.
The monkeys also display polygamous behavior, including males and females. The animals will have several partners, sometimes at the same time.
Mating and Reproduction
What is the capuchin mating behavior like? While typically, in most animal societies, males will prove their dominance, and then the alpha male will approach the female, it’s different with capuchins.
There’s still a dominant alpha, but the female seeks to gain his attention rather than vice-versa. She’ll begin doing this during her proceptive period, when the female actively seeks a mate.
Even once the female’s proceptive period passes, she can approach six males and mate with them all. These males are subordinates and not alphas, though. This usually happens if the dominant female cannot mate with the alpha males in time.
So do female capuchin monkeys fight over access to the alpha male? It can happen, yes!
There’s no specific mating period for capuchins, as it can happen all year. They gestate once in two years, usually from December to April.
When a female becomes pregnant, the gestation period is up to 180 days. Upon giving birth, the young stick very close to the female capuchin, hanging on her chest and, later, her back.
Male capuchins are territorial animals and largely eschew caretaking duties, so it all rests on the female. It can take eight years for a young male capuchin to reach maturity and half that duration for females.
Capuchin Diet and Nutrition
As omnivores, capuchin monkeys are natural predators and eat just about anything you put in front of them.
They have been known to consume primates, but their standard diet consists of small vertebrates, mollusks, insects like arthropods, exudates, bulbs, sugarcane, woody tissue, pith, seeds, fruits, flowers, and leaves.
The animal’s location plays a role in its diet. For example, if a capuchin has access to a body of water, it will eat shellfish and crabs. Although monkeys have excellent dexterity, they prefer to use old stone tools to crack open the shells of these creatures.
Capuchins will also eat frogs, although not that frequently.
Health and Grooming of Capuchins
As we’ll talk more about shortly, capuchins live in small communities. The health of these assistance animals becomes the business of all the monkeys in that community.
For example, the monkeys will be seen in mutual grooming of each other.
If kept in captivity, capuchins undergo a much more familiar form of grooming, using pet or human shampoo to stay clean.
Training and Exercise of Capuchins
In a native environment such as rain forests or the jungle floor, capuchins can keep themselves fit as they spend hours foraging and moving across the trees. They’re also dexterous climbers.
Keeping a capuchin monkey as a pet means depriving them of that native environment, so you’ll have to exercise it daily. The animals are extreme foragers and need the space to climb and run. More so, capuchins require mental stimulation as much as physical stimulation.
It’s not challenging to train a capuchin. The animal possesses great smarts and can learn tasks quickly.
For instance, one great means of training capuchin monkeys is to aid quadriplegics. If you keep capuchins as a pet, you could train them to do tricks and performances.
Social Structure of Capuchins
Let’s delve deeper into the social behaviors of capuchin monkeys since we’ve alluded to it several times already.
Capuchins live in communities or groups. On the smaller side, they may live among 10 other monkeys, but it’s not unheard of for the numbers to bloat to 35.
As with any community, there exists a hierarchy that’s in part determined by gender and age. One dominant male leads the group and can mate freely with the females.
Some capuchin species, such as the white-headed, include a dominant alpha female with an alpha male.
The point of gathering in such large numbers is to make it easier to find food. The monkeys can spread out far and wide to search for food-rich areas. The monkeys will urinate in the area to ensure other capuchins don’t encroach on that territory.
If another monkey from outside the group gets too close, capuchins can show off their territoriality and aggressiveness, fighting back.
The group will keep its members alive through its unique communication system. They’ll vocalize to warn of predators like snakes.
The Pros and Cons of Keeping a Pet Capuchin
If you’re considering adopting a capuchin monkey as an exotic pet, this pros and cons section will help you make an informed decision.
- Capuchins in captivity usually weigh around four pounds, so they never get too large to keep inside the house.
- Many states have made it legal to keep capuchins.
- They can live for upwards of 40 years in captivity.
- Capuchins are adorable and certainly more unique than your standard cat or dog.
- It’s easy enough to procure most of their dietary staples.
- Capuchins can sometimes eat cooked meat.
- The monkeys are very smart.
- You can easily train a capuchin to do almost anything, as it is a great service animal.
- It’s difficult to replicate a capuchin’s natural habitat (Amazonian rainforest) in your home or backyard.
- Capuchins are increasingly hard to keep, especially when they turn five. If the animal gets bored, it can become aggressive, which leads to scratching, biting, and attacking.
- Capuchins require a lot of exercise daily, much more so than most animals in your home.
- It’s not always legal to keep a capuchin.
- If your monkey gets sick or needs medical help, finding a vet who can treat them will prove very difficult, as the American Veterinary Medical Association discourages using primates in service.
- Capuchins can spread rabies and hepatitis to people.
- The monkeys are known carriers of the monkey B virus, which can lead to encephalomyelitis if you contract it. That can be fatal.
- Buying capuchins is expensive and costs several thousand dollars.
- It’s not morally right to keep an exotic animal as a pet. Capuchins should live their lives outside in the wild with other monkeys.
The Threats and Hazards to Capuchins
Capuchins exist on the food chain just like any other animal, which means they naturally have their predators and prey.
The harpy eagle feeds on tufted capuchins especially. Other predators include crocodiles, snakes, tayras, coyotes, jaguarundis, cougars, and humans.
That’s right, some humans keep capuchins as exotic pets, and others hunt them. However, since capuchins mate so numerously, they’re not at risk of being endangered as of this writing.
Relationships With Humans
As we’ve discussed, the relationship between humans and capuchin monks goes back centuries and centuries. Humans have kept capuchins as pets, used them for street entertainment, and featured them in films and television shows.
Relationships With Family
Capuchins don’t have family ties the way that we people know them. Remember, males don’t get involved with raising their offspring. However, males in a group of capuchins will live with young monkeys and females.
Do you still have a few lingering questions about the capuchins? We’ve put together this handy FAQ list to help!
Are Capuchins Nocturnal?
No, capuchins sleep at night after spending the day climbing, foraging, grooming, and mating.
How Much Time Do Capuchins Spend in Captivity?
Capuchins can live a surprisingly long time when kept in captivity. Their lifespan is between 35 and 40 years, sometimes longer, whereas a wild capuchin lives for 10 to 25 years.
Can You Domesticate a Capuchin Monkey?
While you can train capuchins and keep them as a pet, you can never completely domesticate them. The animal always risks becoming aggressive even if it has never shown any signs of meanness before.
Are Pet Monkeys Difficult to Handle?
Not necessarily at first, no! The first five years with a capuchin monkey can be a cakewalk. Only when the monkey matures, which takes four or more years, owners begin reporting difficulties.
The capuchins become more restless and listless. You’ll have to remain dedicated to entertaining and exercising your capuchin monkey to ward off aggressive behavior. Even then, there are no guarantees the animal won’t attack.
What Is a Comfortable Habitat for Capuchins? Natural or Domesticated?
Like all wild animals, capuchins are much happier in their natural habitat.
A domesticated environment is only so large, so the monkey can become bored. In the wild, capuchins can move from space to space as willingly as they wish.
Capuchins are also more isolated when domesticated since most people only adopt one monkey. The capuchin is used to living in a large community with 30 or 40 monkeys and may struggle independently.
What Is the Cost Associated with Buying a Capuchin Monkey?
Owning a capuchin monkey comes at a price! You’ll spend between $5,000 and $7,000 on one of these primates.
Capuchins are tiny primates with lots of intellect and social skills. They live in communities in trees, forage by day, and sleep at night.
While we can all agree that capuchins are cute, you’re better off visiting a zoo and appreciating a capuchin there than trying to own one. The monkeys need a lot of care and exercise and can become aggressive as they mature.
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