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The Strange Relationship Between Capuchins and Coatis, by Jack Ewing

Hacienda Barú guide Juan Ramón Segura stood with several visitors watching a group of white-faced capuchin monkeys in a strangler fig tree replete with ripe fruit. The primates were pulling handfuls of figs from the branches, stuffing as many as possible in their mouths and dropping more than they ate on the ground.

There was a lone male coati (Nasua narica) in the tree as well, delightfully helping himself to the small, round, red fruits, picking the figs one or two at a time, chewing and relishing the flavor and then picking another. In the upper branches were a pair of chestnut-mandibled toucans (Ramphastos swainsonii) snapping figs off the branches, tossing them into the air and catching them in over-sized beaks. A careful look revealed a number of smaller birds, tanagers, euphonias and vireos feeding within the foliage in the middle of the tree. The strangler fig tree that afternoon was a veritable delicatessen for half a dozen different species.

Juan was answering a visitor's question when a noisy commotion erupted over to one side of the fig tree. The coati with teeth bared, was huddled back into the branches. He was surrounded by four or five monkeys. The capuchins were barking and screaming at the coati, obviously furious about something. One made a move to his front side reaching almost to the coati´s long, pointed snout with its hand. When the raccoon-like coati lunged toward the monkey, two more of the gang grabbed him from behind, and the rest moved in quickly and subdued the furious mammal. The capuchins didn't waste any time with the coati. From Juan's point of view it looked like they gave a mighty heave and hurled him out of the tree. Fortunately the coati's fall was broken by a couple of branches as he plummeted to the ground, about 10 meters (33 feet) beneath. He suffered no serious injuries, only a good shaking up.

This incident illustrates how these two species can be happily feeding together one minute and turn violent the next. In this encounter it is not clear what triggered the monkeys to attack the coati, but Juan has the idea that the coati didn't do anything to evoke their anger. It was almost like a bunch of teenage boys ganging up on a classmate. Many of the guides have seen white-faced capuchin monkeys harass lone coatis, but none of these encounters have resulted in actual physical contact. Almost anyone who lives on Hacienda Barú has seen the two species contentedly sharing a meal together, whether it be figs, palm flowers or cecropia seeds.

Though four or five monkeys were able to throw an adult male coati out of a tree, they had a serious struggle on their hands. I doubt if they would have tried it with a gang of only two or three. A coati's teeth and claws are sharp and they can be very nasty. No monkey is about to tangle with one unless the odds are greatly in its favor. This is not the case, however, with infants. In fact, white-faced capuchin monkeys, which are omnivorous, are the most serious predators of baby coatis. Female coatis make nests, similar to squirrel nests, in the tops of trees. There they give birth and care for the helpless young until they are able to travel with the group. The adult females and young travel in groups that sometimes surpass twenty in number. This provides a high degree of protection. In the nest it is a different story. There the infant coatis are vulnerable, and the capuchins take advantage of the situation. If a group of monkeys can locate a coati nest, it is a fairly simple task to slip in, snatch the baby coatis and scamper away before mama coati comes back.

At one time in the tropical dry forests of Guanacaste province, biologists feared that the capuchins would drive the coatis to local extinction. Normally coatis give birth during the dry season when the weather is favorable, but food is scarce. When there were almost none of the species left in the Guanacaste dry forests, the few remaining females, started giving birth during the rainy season, when the monkeys have plenty to eat. With full stomachs, the capuchins didn't put nearly as much effort into searching out and raiding the coati nests. Coati numbers have increased significantly, and after several years, local extinction was no longer a concern.

One day in October of this year Florence and Hannah were observing the Mancha Negra troop of white-faced capuchins in the lowlands of Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge. It was near mid-day, and the troop just hanging out, not doing much of anything. They were scattered around in the tops of several different trees, some lying on the branches with arms and legs dangling over the sides, one resting in the crouch of a tree, two females were engaged in mutual grooming, and a few of the young were half-heartily playing among the branches. A lone coati male rested on a branch, near the monkeys, but a little off to one side.

A juvenile capuchin gingerly eased up to the coati, but stopped one step short. The raccoon-like male didn't so much as glance at the young monkey. After a few minutes the juvenile eased up to the coati and again sat attentively observing, but the big male remained oblivious. Finally the youngster reached out and touched the thick fur on the coati's back, stroking gently in a grooming motion. When the coati still didn't react, the monkey confidently continued to groom the other mammal just like he might groom his mother or one of his fellow juveniles.

Flor was amazed. It was the first time she had observed or even heard or read of grooming behavior taking place between capuchins and another mammal of a different species. After a short while the strange behavior attracted the attention of El Padrino, who walked right up and stood over the juvenile, completely covering it with his head, shoulders and chest. Undaunted the smaller monkey continued grooming the coati, which hadn't moved and seemed quite contented to be groomed by the primate. El padrino watched for a minute, and then he reached out and began grooming the coati along with the juvenile. The two continued their strange grooming behavior for about a minute. Apparently bored with the novel activity, El Padrino walked away and the juvenile followed.

This experience serves to illustrate just how complex the relationship between these two species is, ranging from infanticide to one-sided grooming, from extreme violence to affectionate behavior. Florence Vallet feels that much has to do with the capuchin's mood. When they are active and full of energy, they are more inclined to mischief. At siesta time, they are more likely to be cordial. As Flor and Hannah continue their observations of these fascinating primates, they hope to shed a little more light on the strange relationship between capuchins and coatis, as well as many other questions.

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