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13 July 2007
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Science & Nature: Animals Science & Nature
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Spider monkey silhouette The spider monkey and the rainforest

The spider monkeys of the Amazon rainforest depend on the trees for shelter, food and fun. And they do the trees some favours, too.

Words and images: Nick Gordon
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Seeking out the spider monkey
Having survived the terrifying process of climbing the 48-metre tower in the pitch dark, all I had to do was wait. Just before 6am, toucans began calling and I wiped the condensation off the camera's viewfinder and looked through. Just seven metres in front of me, a large huddle of black fur began to untangle itself as six spider monkeys began slowly waking up.

As the sun drenched the rainforest canopy, the monkeys used their long arms and prehensile tails to hang off the branch - they were sunbathing. Limbs spread, silhouetted against the deep blue sky, it was clear how these primates got their name.

Monkey and rainforest - the perfect fit
The rainforest is an extremely complex ecosystem into which the spider monkey fits perfectly. It specialises in eating the fruits of many big forest trees, and because it swallows fruits without chewing, the seeds are eventually passed out in free packets of fertiliser, usually far from the parent tree. It's the perfect seed dispersal strategy.

Spider monkey groups number between four and nine. I was watching three females, one with a four-month-old baby, and two males. Females rule spider monkey society. The group's dominant female leads them about their territory throughout the year, and chooses a male when she is ready to mate. Each group knows its territory intimately. A good memory for the available food sources is essential during the long five months when fruits are scarce.

On the razzle
Without doubt, my most memorable observation of wild spider monkeys was at the Smithsonian Institute's forest reserve, 70km north-west of Manaus. Trudging along the trails to my tree tower, I could see a group of eight spider monkeys in a tree, stuffing themselves with overripe and fermenting orange-coloured fruits.

They were getting drunk. Their play was much more boisterous than usual: one adult male threw a mushy fruit at another that was chasing him. It missed. They licked their sticky fingers and their faces became caked with the fruit pulp, like toddlers at a tea party. One of them leapt out to catch a nearby branch and fell 20 metres to a lower limb. Unshaken, he ran back up to continue the fray.

After an hour, the monkeys were either draped over boughs or wedged into the forks of branches, heads drooped, hands and feet hanging, tails looped around branches. It wasn't hard to imagine how they would feel the morning after.

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From an original article in the June 2001 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine - Monkey business.


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