Differential effects of unusual climatic stress on capuchin (Cebus capucinus) and howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) populations on Barro Colorado Island, Panama


  • Katharine Milton,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, California
    • Correspondence to: Katharine Milton, Department Environmental Science, Policy and Management, 130 Mulford Hall, University of California Berkeley, CA 94720-3114. E-mail: kmilton@berkeley.edu

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  • Jacalyn Giacalone

    1. College of Science and Mathematics, Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey
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Though the harmful effects anthropogenic disturbances pose to wild primates are well appreciated, comparatively little is known about the effects of natural disturbances. From December 2010 to January 2011, different mortality patterns were observed for two primate species, capuchins and howler monkeys, on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama. Unusually high rainfall in 2010 was associated with census and cadaver data indicating the rapid loss of >70% of the capuchin population in late 2010 to early 2011. In contrast, over this same period, no decline was documented for howler monkeys and cadaver data for howlers was unexceptional. The high mortality experienced by the capuchin population was unexpected and its extent was not fully appreciated until the event was largely over. Explanations proposed for it included effects of hypothermia, disease or a shortage of some essential nutrient(s). Of these, the dietary explanation seems most probable. BCI capuchins depend most heavily on arthropod foods in December, when few higher quality ripe fruits are available. The unprecedented high rainfall in December 2010 is hypothesized to have largely eliminated the arthropod peak expected on BCI each December. A lack of protein-rich arthropods, when coupled with the climatic and nutritional stress capuchins generally experience at this time of year, appears to have precipitated the rapid die-off of most of the island's capuchin population. As howler monkeys obtain dietary protein primarily from leaves, a shortage of edible arthropods would not affect howler numbers. Comparison of our 2010 data with similar data on earlier primate/mammalian mortality events reported for BCI and for Corcovado, Costa Rica indicates that our understanding of the effects of natural disturbances on wild primate populations is not profound. We suggest that more research be devoted to this increasingly timely topic, so important to conservation policy. Am. J. Primatol. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.