Central American Squirrel Monkey


Description and biology

The Central American squirrel monkey is also known as the red–backed squirrel monkey because of the short, thick reddish fur covering its back, limbs, and tail. The fur on the rest of its body, including its face, is white.

An average Central American squirrel monkey has a head and body length of 9 to 14 inches (23 to 36 centimeters) and weighs between 1 and 2.4 pounds (0.5 and 1.1 kilograms). The tail, which is not prehensile (adapted for grasping or holding by wrapping around something), measures 14 to 18 inches (36 to 46 centimeters) long.

The Central American squirrel monkey spends most of its time in trees and feeds on fruit and insects. Groups of 10 to 40 monkeys live together, often combining with other groups to form very large societies. Some groups inhabit forest areas as small as 2 acres (0.8 hectare). Others may occupy as much as 50 to 100 acres (20 to 40 hectares).

Males often fight with each other over the right to mate with a female. After a gestation (pregnancy) period of 152 to 170 days, a female Central American squirrel monkey gives birth to a single infant. It clings to its mother after birth and remains dependent on her for almost a year.

Habitat and current distribution

Central American squirrel monkeys are found only in western Panama and southern Costa Rica. Biologists (people who study living organisms) have estimated that the Costa Rican population numbers 3,000. The number of monkeys living in Panama is unknown. In these two regions, the animals prefer to inhabit forests, woodlands, and areas dominated by shrubs and low, bushy trees.

History and conservation measures

The population of Central American squirrel monkeys has decreased greatly since the 1950s. The primary reason is due to deforestation (the loss of forests as they are rapidly cut down to produce timber or to make land available for agriculture). Much of the squirrel monkey’s habitat has been converted to banana plantations, cattle ranches, and rice and sugar cane farms.

Costa Rican farmers have transformed this land through slash–and–burn agriculture, a process whereby a forest is cut down and all trees and vegetation are burned to create cleared land.

Although this process clears land quickly, it robs the soil of essential nutrients. The land does not stay fertile for very long. Thus, farmers must continually clear new land in order to grow crops.

The Panamanian government passed a land reform law in the 1950s that required land owners to make profitable use of their forested land or be forced to give up that land. As a result, forests—and squirrel monkey habitat—were destroyed to create money–making farms.

The monkeys have also faced the threat of capture. Up through the 1970s, they were taken from their forest habitat and exported around the world for use as pets and in medical research. International treaties now ban the sale and trade of the animals.

Central American squirrel monkeys are protected in the Corcovado National Biological Reserve in southern Costa Rica.

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