The Jungle is Right Outside my Door

By Katrina Macht
February 4, 2004

Katrina Macht headshot There is no need to make long, sweaty treks deep into the forest to see wildlife on BCI. All I need to do is walk onto my porch or balcony at any time of the day or night and I am surrounded by an abundance of critters, from flamboyant butterflies and an array of energetic birds, to a parade of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, great and small.

I was given a special gift when I arrived for my three week stay on the island this year, a second-story room with a balcony facing three large balsa trees, hosts to an assortment of forest creatures and the providers of countless hours of enjoyment. I am most entertained by the monkeys and often find it difficult to drag myself away from their playful antics to actually explore the forest. I'm content to wile away my day in sheer delight of the primates' riotous escapades.

Over the past two weeks I have come to know a small troop of capuchins best, as they pass every afternoon through the balsa treetops on their way to their bedtime roost. If it's 4:00, it must be monkey time. Sometimes they dart so close to the balcony I can almost reach out and touch them.

Also called white-faced monkeys, capuchins belong to the genus Cebus and are perhaps the most commonly seen monkeys throughout Central America, ranging as far south as the Amazon of South America. They generally stay in the forest's understory and mid-canopy, which is one of the reasons why they are so easy to spot on BCI, whether it is in these trees surrounding the living quarters or along a forest trail.

Although they can grow to be three feet long, including their prehensile tail, the members of the troop passing by my door each afternoon appear to be smaller. They are dark chocolate individuals, with pale, hairless faces surrounded by whitish fur. It's that wrinkled, hairless face that gives the capuchin the appearance of a tiny old man. This troop seems to consist of about five or six individuals, including a couple of juveniles and a mother with an infant riding on her back.

Arriving right on cue, their routine is habitual each day. They swing through the trees, sometimes jumping, sometimes scurrying across branches, sometimes just letting go completely to crash to the foliage below, foliage that breaks their falls like giant green trampolines. Always they have one goal in mind - pursuit of the next balsa flower. Looking at the gooey, sticky mess all over their faces whenever they pull their heads out of the flowers, at first I thought they were drinking the blossoms' nectar. Balsa trees have large creamy white, wine-cupped blossoms that open at night and are bat-pollinated. The capuchins approach the nectar-rich flowers with such glee that they often appear to be swallowed whole by the enveloping petals. What a surprise when I read that, although these constantly chattering monkeys may enjoy getting covered in nectar, their primary interest is in the delectable insects living inside the flowers. In fact, white-faced monkeys have quite a varied diet, foraging for fruits and leaves, as well as many different species of arthropods, displaying a particular fondness for bruchid beetles. They've even been known to eat birds' eggs, baby birds, and small mammals such as baby squirrels.

Scampering from tree to tree, flower to flower, communication with one another is maintained through little chirps, squeaks, and whistles. Their continuous chatter is broken only by pauses to poke a head in another flower, or perhaps to stare in serious contemplation at some poor, unsuspecting human walking beneath their reach, as they hatch a dastardly assault plan.

They may look cute and adorable, but capuchins are not mellow monkeys. Far from possessing the placid behavior of their benign cousins, the howlers or tamarins, Cebus monkeys are aggressive animals. They can often be seen accosting unwitting humans who make the mistake of standing directly beneath their line of fire. It is not uncommon for them to leap up and down on branches, turning twigs, fruits, foliage and anything else they can get their hands on, into missiles to hurl at unsuspecting individuals below. I speak from the experience of one of those unsuspecting victims, who has had Dipteryx fruits launched at me and a capuchin spit at me as he crossed the forest trail I was walking on.

Their peevishness, however, is not reserved for humans. Quarrels and fights between members of the same troop, as well as between members of opposing troops, are a common sight. Last week I witnessed a spectacular battle involving three males. Curious to learn who was squawking and making an unbelievable racket in the trees, I ran to the balcony to see three little wizened men facing off on one horizontal balsa branch. Their face-off suddenly erupted into a wrestling match, with repeated attempts to throw each other off the branch to the forest floor below. And then, as quickly as it started, the fight was over, having ended in a draw. Miraculously all three monkeys were still hanging on to the same branch and, with chirps and whistles, each faded in a different direction, leaving me to wonder, "What was that all about?"

No matter what their actions, capuchins are fascinating creatures to spy on and volumes can be learned about their behavior through careful, patient observation, sitting right here on this balcony. Whatever my plans for the day, I make every effort to be back at my room in the late afternoon to watch these rambunctious animals. It's a consistent high point of any day on BCI and better than TV.