Ringtail Capuchins (Cebus capucinus): White-Headed Monkeys of Central and South America

by DerdriuMarriner

White-headed capuchins know how to work audiences. They land top jobs acting in films and on stages, streets and TV. Who will forget Marcel's tail ringing Ross' neck on "Friends"?

Getting the attention of the leading wildlife-loving scientist of the time -- Carolus Linnaeus (May 23, 1707 – January 10, 1778) -- augurs well for an endearing example of New World fauna discovered by intrepid European explorers in eighteenth-century northwestern Colombia.

Meriting inclusion in the scientific world’s blockbuster masterpiece of 1758 -- Systema naturae per regna tria naturae (System of nature in three kingdoms of nature) -- by the same workaholic only consolidates the reputation of the animal in question.

Amiable personality, elaborate vocalizations, intelligent gaze, manual skills, quick reflexes, uproarious playfulness, and youthful energy hopefully mean that ringtail, white-headed capuchin monkeys will continue to charm those who love wild animals and outwit those who destroy wild habitats.

ringtail capuchin monkey: facial coloring contrasts with head and body coloring.

Parque Nacional Cahuita (Cahuita National Park), south Caribbean coast, Costa Rica
Parque Nacional Cahuita (Cahuita National Park), south Caribbean coast, Costa Rica


Capuchin monkeys are so called due to the imaginations of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European explorers in what is now Central and South America. Sailors and soldiers sent by the husband-and-wife team of Queen Isabella I (April 22, 1451 – November 26, 1504) of Castile and Leon and King Ferdinand II (March 10, 1452 – January 23, 1516) of Aragon, Castile, Leon, Sicily and Valencia as well as by the mother-and-son team of Queen Joanna (November 6, 1479 – April 12, 1555) of Aragon, Castile and Leon and King Charles I (February 24, 1500 – September 21, 1558) of Spain -- get credit for correlating the monkey’s appearance with a head-and-shoulders hooded capelet. The word for the headgear in Spanish is capucha.


The white-colored manifestation of the ancient headgear historically functions as signature attire of Tuscan hermits in central-western Italy. The usage is honored in all-white head-to-foot habits for the Benedictine religious order founded in 1012 by Saint Romuald (951? – June 19, 1027) at Camaldoli hermitage and Fonte Buono. It is linked most commonly with the Friars Minor Capuchin. The autonomous Franciscan order originates in reforms -- symbolized by re-adopting the hood-sewn tunic of Saint Francis of Assisi (September 26, 1182 - October 3, 1226) -- ideated by Matteo Serafini da Bascio (1495 – August 6, 1552) in central-eastern Italy’s Diocese of Fermo and approved by Pope Clement VII (May 26, 1478 – September 25, 1534) in 1525, 1526, and 1528.


White faces of ringtail capuchin monkeys peer out from their dark heads and bodies, offering contrast reminiscent of monks enshrouded in darkened habits:

"Meditation of Saint Francis": 1632 oil on canvas by Francisco de Zurbarán (baptized November 7, 1598 – August 27, 1664)
Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts), Buenos Aires, Argentina
Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts), Buenos Aires, Argentina


Since 2011, two genera accommodate capuchin monkeys. Genetic research published by Jessica Lynch Alfaro acknowledges differences between gracile and robust capuchins. Gracile and robust capuchins appear to diverge -- following the creation of the Amazon River -- from a common ancestor about 6,200,000 years ago. Robust capuchins of the Atlantic Forest -- running from northeastern Brazil’s Rio Grande do Norte southward into northern Argentina and southwestward into eastern Paraguay -- belong to the genus Sapajus. Structural differences compound the gracile monkey’s different geography north of the Amazon River. Gracile monkeys continue membership in the genus Cebus. They display:

  • Longer limbs;
  • Rounder skulls.

They lack:

  • Male beards and tufts;
  • Sagittal crests ridging in two the top of the skull.


21st monkey taxonomy: Ringtail capuchins remain in the Cebus genus assigned to them in the 18th century by Sweden's taxonomic genius, Carl Linnaeus;

robust, tufted capuchins are transferred into their own genus, Sapajus.
Black capuchin (Sapajus nigritus cucullatus) in Florianópolis, Brazil
Black capuchin (Sapajus nigritus cucullatus) in Florianópolis, Brazil


The Sapajus genus accepts as species the following:

  • Black-capped apella;
  • Black-horned nigritus;
  • Black-striped libidinosus;
  • Blond-bodied flavius;
  • Golden-bellied xanthosternos.

The Cebus genus accounts for the species described as:

  • Urubu-Ka’apor Indian kaapori;
  • Weeper olivaceus;
  • White-fronted albifrons;
  • White-headed capucinus.

White-headed capuchins carry the additional common names of:

  • Capucin moine in Caribbean and Guianan French;
  • Gorgona, ringtail, white-faced, and white-throated capuchin in English;
  • Macaco prego de cara branca in Brazilian Portuguese;
  • Maiceromicomono capuchino/carablanca in Spanish;
  • Ruyak machin in Runa Simi (Quechua);
  • Witschouderkapucijnaap in Caribbean and Surinamese Dutch.

They differ from fellow Cebus genus members in:

  • Being the only capuchin monkey to claim native residence in Central America;
  • Coiling their prehensile tails over their backs in patterns reminiscent of rings. 


Cycle of life and life lessons: Ringtail capuchins with dexterous, human-like fingers are problem-solvers and tinkerers.

"clase de biología"
"clase de biología"


Ringtail capuchins boast the following features:

  • Black or brown bodies and tails;
  • Human-like feet and hands with respectively opposable big toes and thumbs;
  • Pink or white faces with dark brows or patched fur;
  • White- or yellow-furred chest, neck, shoulders, throat, and upper arms.

Females can be 25% smaller than males. Adult dimensions fluctuate around:

  • 12.99 – 19.49 inches (33 – 49.5 centimeters) for head-and-body lengths;
  • 15.55 – 21.26 inches (39.5 – 54 centimeters) for tail lengths;
  • 3.09 – 10.80 pounds (1.4 – 4.9 kilograms) for weight.

Breeding seasons for males mating with multiple females go year-round. Births nevertheless peak between the late dry season and the early rainy, from December to April. Five- or six-month gestation periods produce one newborn or occasional twins.


Females are sexually active year-round even though births generally result every 2 years. They back-pack, feed and instruct their newborns until the weaning age of 2 – 4 months. Their offspring become independent in foraging, movement and survival skills at age 4 – 8 years. A female is deemed sexually mature at ages 4 – 7 years even though a male matures at ages 7 – 10 years. Every 4 years thereafter, a male leaves one alpha male-dominated group for another. The female never leaves the 15- to 30+-member group into which she is born. Female and male ringtail capuchins may live as long as 30 years in the wild. They may survive as long as 45 – 55 years in captivity. 


Female ringtail capuchins backpack their young'uns.

Costa Rica
Costa Rica


Ringtail capuchins defend 80+-hectare (0.8-square mile) home ranges against predation by:

  • Caimans (Caiman crocodilus);
  • Harpy eagles (Harpia harpyja);
  • Jaguars (Panthera onca);
  • Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis);
  • Snakes (especially lanceheads [Bothrops asper] and tree boas [Corallus annulatus, C. ruschenbergerii]).

They effectively depend upon:

  • Alarm-calling sentries;
  • Fist- and stick-pummeling warriors;
  • Parthian volley-wielding retreaters.

They never drop their guard, even when applying 32 sharp teeth -- 2 incisors, 1 canine, 2 premolars, and 3 molars per lower and upper left and right jaws -- to diets of:

  • Baby coatis and squirrels;
  • Bird eggs;
  • Bromeliad-retained water;
  • Fresh crabs, frogs, lizards, slugs and snails;
  • Ground- and tree-dwelling ants, beetles, caterpillars and wasps;
  • Ripened fruit juices and pulps (especially figs and mangos);
  • Young flowers, leaves and seeds.


Nicknamed picturesquely as painted leopards, ocelots draw upon their sleek swiftness to prey upon ringtail capuchin monkeys.

photo by Tom Smylie/US Fish and Wildlife Service-Southwest Region, Albuquerque, New Mexico
photo by Tom Smylie/US Fish and Wildlife Service-Southwest Region, Albuquerque, New Mexico


Noisy hunts, lessons, meals and recreation are conducted at ground-level or in treetops by all four subspecies:

  • Cebus capucinus capucinus in Colombia, Ecuador and Panama;
  • C.c. curtus in Gorgona Island, Colombia;
  • C.c. imitator in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama;
  • C.c. limitaneus in Honduras.

All subspecies members surely epitomize adaptability and agility. For example, they escape and hide within seconds because of skills at:

  • Climbing;
  • Problem-solving and tinkering;
  • Running;
  • Swimming.

They favor close-canopied, super-humid, well-drained forests at elevations of 3,608.92 – 6,889.76 feet (1,100 – 2,100 meters). They nevertheless flourish in:

  • Coastal plains;
  • Deciduous, degraded, evergreen, or secondary-growth forests;
  • Insular environments in the Caribbean at Roatán, Lake Nicaragua at Ometepe, and the Pacific at Coiba, Gorgona, and Jicarón;
  • Volcanic foothills. 


protective paradise for ringtail capuchin monkeys:

Ometepe in Central America's largest freshwater lake, Lake Nicaragua, located in southwestern Nicaragua
Volcán Concepción, northwestern Ometepe, from Volcán Maderas, southeastern Ometepe, looking across the isthmus
Volcán Concepción, northwestern Ometepe, from Volcán Maderas, southeastern Ometepe, looking across the isthmus

Conclusion: Protected areas to sustain ringtail capuchin monkeys as forest-loving foragers


Each ringtail capuchin monkey subspecies benefits from protected areas in every country within the species’ range. A combination of ecological reserves, forest reserves, international parks, national natural parks, national parks, natural monuments, nature reserves, protected forests, and wildlife refuges confer upon ringtail capuchin monkeys 24/7 access to prime locations totaling 1,647,750+ hectares (16,477.5+ square kilometers) worth of land in:

  • Colombia;
  • Costa Rica;
  • Ecuador;
  • Honduras;
  • Panama.

The availability of lush, spacious protected areas represents a first step in keeping ringtail capuchins safe from fur-and-meat hunters and pet traders. It serves as a viable role model for sustaining such obligate forest-regenerators, population-controllers, and seed-dispersers as all four subspecies of the ringtail capuchin monkey of Central and northwestern South America. 


Cebus capucinus derives one of its common names -- ringtail capuchin -- from its prehensile preference for anchoring and balancing by ringing its tail around branches.

white-faced capuchin monkey
white-faced capuchin monkey



My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.


female ringtail capuchin with young'un

Christmas eve visit, Costa Rica: "monkey on your back"
Christmas eve visit, Costa Rica: "monkey on your back"

Sources Consulted


"Catholic Encyclopedia: Capuchin Friars Minor." Catholic Online. Retrieved on February 8, 2014.

  • Available at: http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=2532

Causado, J.; Cuarón, A.D.; Shedden, A.; Rodríguez-Luna, E.; & de Grammont, P.C. 2008. "Cebus capucinus." In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved on February 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/40020/0

"Cinnamon White Faced Capuchin." Zoological Wildlife Foundation. Retrieved on February 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://zoologicalwildlifefoundation.com/animals/mammals/primates/new-world-monkeys/cinnamon-white-faced-capuchin/

Eisenberg, J. 1989. Mammals of the Neotropics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Emmons, L. H. and F. Feer. 1997. Neotropical Rainforest Mammals, A Field Guide, Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Estrada, A.; Garber, P.; Pavelka, M.; Luecke, L. 2006. New Perspectives in the Study of Mesoamerican Primates: Distribution, Ecology, Behavior, and Conservation. NY: Springer.

Fragaszy, D. M.; Visalberghi, E.; and Fedigan, L. M. 2004. The Complete Capuchin: The Biology of the Genus Cebus. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press. 

Grzimek, B., K. Gold. 2004. "New World monkeys I: Squirrel Monkeys and Capuchins." Pp. 101-113 in Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, Vol. 14, Second Edition. Farmington Hills, Mi: Gale.

InfoNatura: Animals and Ecosystems of Latin America [web application]. 2007. Version 5.0 . Arlington, Virginia (USA): NatureServe. Retrieved on February 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://www.natureserve.org/infonatura/servlet/InfoNatura?searchName=Cebus+capucinus

Knight, K. 2013. "The Catholic Encyclopedia: Camaldolese." New Advent Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Retrieved on February 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03204d.htm

Long, J. 2009. "Cebus capucinus white-faced capuchin" (On-line). Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved on February 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Cebus_capucinus/

Lynch Alfaro, J.W.; Boubli, J.P.; Olson, L.E.; DiFiore, A.; Wilson, B.; Gutierrez-Espeleta, G.A.; Chiou, K.L.; Schulte, M.; Neitzel, S.; Ross, V.; Schwochow, D.; Nguyen, M.T.T.; Farias, I.; Janson, C.H.; and Alfaro, M.E. 2011. "Explosive Pleistocene Range Expansion Leads to Widespread Amazon Sympatry between Robust and Gracile Capuchin Monkeys." Journal of Biogeography 1-17. 

Lynch Alfaro, J.W.; Silva, J.S.; and Rylands, A.B. 2012. "How Different Are Robust and Gracile Capuchin Monkeys? An Argument for the Use of Sapajus and Cebus." American Journal of Primatology 74(4):273-286. 

Myers, P.R.; Espinosa, C. S.; Parr, T.; Jones, G. S.; Hammond; and T. A. Dewey. 2014. "Cebus capucinus white-faced capuchin." The Animal Diversity Web (online). Retrieved on February 8, 2014.  

  • Available at: http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Cebus_capucinus/specimens/

Nowak, R. 1991. Walker's Mammals of the World, Fifth Edition. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Reid, F. A. 1997. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico. NY: Oxford University Press. 

Roberts, D. March 2006. "Mammal Skulls: Capuchin Monkey (Cebus capuchinus [sic]) Skull." DeLoy Roberts' Animal Skull Collection at Skyline High School, Idaho Falls, Idaho. Retrieved on February 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://www.d91.k12.id.us/skyline/science/zoology/monkeyc.htm

Saint-Hilaire, E. G.; and Cuvier, F. G. 1824. Histoire Naturelle des Mammifères. Paris: Imprimerie lithographique de Charles Philibert (comte) de Lasteyrie du Saillant. 

"White-throated capuchin (Cebus capucinus)." ARKive. Retrived on February 8, 2014. 

  • Available at: http://www.arkive.org/white-throated-capuchin/cebus-capucinus/

Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder (editors). 2005. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, Third Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 


agile, enthusiastic climber: ringtail capuchin monkey (Cebus capucinus)

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (Manuel Antonio National Park),  Pacific coast, Costa Rica
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (Manuel Antonio National Park), Pacific coast, Costa Rica
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

White-throated Capuchin Monkey (Cebus capucinus), Cahuita National Park, southern Caribbean coast, Costa Rica: photo by Thomas Marent

10x14 Photo Puzzle with 252 pieces. Packed in black cardboard box, 5 5/8 x 7 5/8 x 1 1/5. Puzzle image 5x7 affixed to box top.
Photo Jigsaw Puzzle of White-throated Capuchin - Ardea Wildlife Pets

White-Faced Capuchin Monkey with young'un on back, Costa Rica: photo by Stefan Meyers

10x14 Photo Puzzle with 252 pieces. Packed in black cardboard box, 5 5/8 x 7 5/8 x 1 1/5. Puzzle image 5x7 affixed to box top.
Photo Jigsaw Puzzle: White-faced Capuchin with young - Ardea Pets

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DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 08/20/2014, DerdriuMarriner
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