The Role of Minerals in Food Selection in a Black Howler Monkey (Alouatta Pigra) Population in Belize Following a Major Hurricane


  • Grant sponsor: Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada; Grant sponsor: International Primatological Society; Grant sponsor: Sigma Xi; Grant sponsor: Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Social Sciences and Graduate Studies, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Correspondence to: Alison M. Behie, School of Archaeology and Anthropology, College of Arts and Social Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra, 0200, Australia. E-mail:


As plants may contain low levels of some minerals including sodium, copper, and phosphorous, herbivores may become deficient in these nutrients. In 2001, Hurricane Iris hit the Monkey River Forest in Belize causing substantial damage to the food supply of the black howler monkey population (Alouatta pigra) living there. This included an 18-month absence in fruit production and a complete loss of figs that are high in calcium. In this article, we describe the post-hurricane diet of this monkey population and compare the mineral content of food items to each other and to recommendations for non-human primates [NRC 2003]. We also investigate food selection in relation to potentially limiting minerals. Behavioral data from four groups of howlers (2002–2006) and samples of all ingested food items were collected and a sample of 99 plant from 18 food species was analyzed for mineral content. Unexpectedly, the post-hurricane diet contained more mature leaves than new leaves despite the availability of new leaves. Leaves contained higher amounts of minerals than reproductive parts and with the exception of Cecropia peltata stems, plant parts were low in sodium. Cecropia peltata is a pioneer species that grows following habitat disturbance thus the ingestion of these stems may be a potential mechanism to avoid sodium deficiency in this damaged forest. Calcium and zinc were found above recommended values in most food items; however, both positively predicted food selection, which may reflect a difference between their abundance and their bioavailability. However, as mature leaves contained more calcium than other plant parts, their high post-hurricane consumption may also be a response to the absence of figs and the need to find an alternate calcium source. This study highlights how habitat disturbance may affect mineral abundance and the dietary choices of primates. Am. J. Primatol. 74:1054-1063, 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.