The ecological role of the prehensile tail in white-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus)

Am J Phys Anthropol. 1999 Nov;110(3):325-39. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1096-8644(199911)110:3<325::AID-AJPA5>3.0.CO;2-D.


Prehensile tails appear to have evolved at least twice in platyrrhine evolution. In the atelines, the tail is relatively long and possesses a bare area on the distal part of its ventral surface that is covered with der-matoglyphs and richly innervated with Meissner's corpuscles. In contrast, the prehensile tail of Cebus is relatively short, fully haired, and lacks specialized tactile receptors. Little is currently known regarding tail function in capuchins, and whether their prehensile tail serves a greater role in feeding or traveling. In this paper we examine patterns of positional behavior, substrate preference, and tail use in wild white-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus) inhabiting a wet tropical forest in northeastern Costa Rica. Observational data were collected over the course of 3 months on adult capuchins using an instantaneous focal animal time sampling technique. Differences in the frequency and context of tail use, and the estimated amount of weight support provided by the tail relative to other appendages during feeding/foraging and traveling were used as measures of the ecological role of this specialized organ in capuchin positional behavior. During travel, quadrupedal walking, leaping, and climbing dominated the capuchin positional repertoire. The capuchin tail provided support in only 13.3% of travel and was principally employed during below branch locomotor activities. In contrast, tail-assisted postures accounted for 40.6% of all feeding and foraging records and occurred primarily in two contexts. The tail was used to suspend the individual below a branch while feeding, as well as to provide leverage and weight support in above-branch postures associated with the extraction of prey from difficult to search substrates. A comparison of tail use in Cebus, with published data on the atelines indicates that both taxa possess a grasping tail that is capable of supporting the animal's full body weight. In capuchins and howling monkeys, the tail appears to be used more frequently and serves a greater weight-bearing role during feeding than during traveling. In Ateles, and possibly Brachyteles, and Lagothrix, however, the prehensile tail serves a dual role in both feeding and forelimb suspensory locomotion. Additional relationships between white-faced capuchin feeding, positional behavior, extractive foraging techniques, and prehensile tail use are discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cebus / anatomy & histology*
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Female
  • Locomotion
  • Male
  • Posture*
  • Tail / anatomy & histology*