There are seven species of spider monkey of which the black-handed spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) is one. There are also several sub-species of the black-handed spider monkey. The entire species is vulnerable due to the ever-increasing disappearance of their natural habitat and their capture for meat and for the pet trade.

The black-handed spider monkey occupies mangrove areas, tropical rainforests, and evergreen, deciduous and semi-deciduous forests throughout Central America from west Panama to Vera Cruz in Mexico.

It could be said that spider monkeys have five limbs. The legs and arms are long and slender and the prehensile tail acts as a fifth limb. When these five long 'limbs' are all operating together the animal becomes very reminiscent of a spider.

Black-handed Spider MonkeyCredit: Wikimedia

Spider monkeys are frugivore meaning that most of their nutrients come from ripe fruit. They are also herbivores as they eat seeds, flowers, leaves, eggs and small insects. Peanuts, mealworms, sunflower seeds and a variety of fruit and vegetables are fed to spider monkeys in zoos. They also are given a special commercial mix of primate chow. Spider monkeys are diurnal as most of their activity and feeding occurs during daylight hours and mainly in the early morning. They are also arboreal, spending most of their time in trees as opposed to on the ground.

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The spider monkey is well adapted for living in trees. Their movement is said to be quadrupedal, bipedal and suspensory. It is quadrupedal as they use all four limbs when moving on the ground. They also climb hand over hand while hanging under branches (suspensory). They have no trouble gripping by one limb or by the tail. They are one of the most nimble of the primates and move through the upper levels of the jungle canopy by swinging from tree to tree or even by leaping. The bipedal movement occurs when they walk along the upper surfaces of branches.


Spider MonkeyCredit: Wikimedia

The tail helps in locomotion and can also be used to hold items when feeding. There is a fleshy, hairless pad at the end of the tail. This is somewhat like the palm of the hand and gives better grip. The arms are very long and there is no true thumb. The body is short and compact and, when combined with long, gangly limbs and tail, makes them very manoeuvrable and acrobatic.

The spider monkey is very distinctive. It has a small head but the muzzle is quite large. The mostly black, hairless face has unpigmented skin round the eyes and muzzle which results in whitish rings in these areas. The hands, elbows, feet and knees are all black. The fur is stringy and coarse. The fur varies from a light buff to reddish-brown and the undersurfaces are paler. Colouring depends on the sub-species. The babies are born black, changing colour in the first few months of their lives.

Depending on the sex and sub-species, head and body length varies between 31 and 63 cm with the tail adding another 64 to86 cm. Weight can vary between 6 and 9 kg.

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The social structure of the spider monkey depends to a large degree on the availability of food. Spider monkeys congregate in groups but form smaller groups to forage, especially when food is scarce. This type of loose community living is called 'fission-fusion'. When there is plenty of food, there may be 20 or so in a troop and sometimes a great deal more. About three quarters of their food comes from fruit. Areas where food is abundant will be defended against other primates. When food is in short supply, they form groups of two to eight to forage. When other food is scarce, they will consume more leaves than at other times. The smaller groups will reassemble in more 'fruitful' times or will sometimes come together each evening. They eat around dawn and again at dusk, resting through the heat of the day. Under normal conditions, a group will stay in a region, using the same sleeping area most nights.

When ready to mate, females choose their mates and initiate copulation. This takes place face to face which is uncommon in the monkey world. Breeding occurs all year round but a female generally give birth only once every two to four years after a gestation of seven to eight months. Average weight at birth is 426 grams. Mating is restricted to a period of two to three days every oestrus which occurs every 24 to 27 days. Females are sexually mature at four. Males are not sexually mature till five. All young stay with their mother for around three years. Once mature, females would normally migrate to another group. Female spider monkeys have an enlarged clitoris which resembles the penis of the males. Many primates have a baculum, a bone in the penis, but the spider monkey does not. In captivity spider monkeys may live for 33 years.

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To communicate, each monkey has its own 'call sign'. A long call is only made by males. This can carry for over 500 metres. It may indicate alarm, a feeding site and/or spacing between subgroups. When separated from each other, they make a sound like the whinny of a horse. The spider monkey has a very mobile face and a number of 'stare' displays. The mouth may be open or closed, the lips pouted or drawn back depending on the mood and desired signal. Social grooming reinforces bonds between individual monkeys. Threat displays consist of 'barking', jumping up and down, shake tree limbs and dropping branches.

The black-handed spider monkey needs large areas of tall forest if it is to survive. It is tolerant of some logging but wide-scale clearing has put the spider monkey at risk. For some Central and South American peoples it is a food source. In areas readily accessible to hunters, either for food or the pet trade, the spider monkey is locally extinct. Its noisy displays and congregation into large groups make it relatively easily found in the forest.

Some of the sub-species are listed as 'vulnerable' with others as 'endangered'. The brown-headed spider monkey and Azuero are 'critically endangered'.