Atelesspider monkeys


The genus Ateles is made up of 7 extant species of spider monkeys, and includes numerous subspecies. Spider monkeys cover a broad range of Central and South American rainforests. The species are very similar to one another in terms of behavior and physical appearance, and the exact phylogeny is still being worked out among them. Spider monkeys are culturally significant to humans, and every species of them is threatened with extinction. (IUCN, 2022; Morales-Jimenez, et al., 2015; Strier, 2004)

Geographic Range

Spider monkeys range from the northern part of Mexico all the way through to northern Bolivia. They are commonly found in the Amazon rainforest. Each of the seven species lives in their own region, without much overlap between them. However, habitat loss and fragmentation have played a major role in decreasing their distribution. (Morales-Jimenez, et al., 2015; Scherbaum and Estrada, 2013; Strier, 2004)


Spider monkeys live in tropical rainforests, where they have wide home ranges in order to find an abundance of fruit. Some species do live in semi-deciduous forests. Spider monkeys choose their range based on water resources, climate, their ability to defend the area, and predation risk. They primarily live in the tree canopy of many types of trees, where they are off the ground to avoid some predation, and where there is an abundance of fruit. They have been known to be on the ground in order to travel, eat, drink, and play for short periods of time. (Campbell, 2008; Scherbaum and Estrada, 2013; Strier, 2004)

Systematic and Taxonomic History

Genus Ateles has 7 extant species, with many subspecies. It is most closely related to Brachyteles and Lagothrix, which are woolly monkeys. The genus was originally named Ameranthropoides in 1799, but the name was changed to Ateles in 1806. There is much debate about how the 7 species evolved from one another, and if some of them should be combined into one species. They were originally grouped based off of morphological characteristics, such as pelage color and hair length. Over time, researchers have grouped them based off of other factors, such as genetic data and phylogenetic analysis. Each of these methods led to different results, but most approaches agree that Ateles paniscus is the basal taxon of the genus. However, even this is still up for debate. ("Catalogue of Life", 2020; Morales-Jimenez, et al., 2015)

  • Synonyms
    • Ameranthropoides
    • Montaneia
    • Paniscus
    • Sapajou
  • Synapomorphies
    • Genetic data of cytochrome b
    • Pelage color

Physical Description

Spider monkeys have short faces, and small heads. They have a long, thin tail and limbs, with a larger torso. Their fingers are long and hooked for grabbing, and their long tails are used for suspensory locomotion. Spider monkeys are typically black, and have pale eye patches. There is evidence in Ateles paniscus of sexual dimorphism, where the females are larger than the males, but there isn't evidence of this in the other species. (Campbell, 2008; Strier, 2004)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike


Females and males both use grooming as a method of attracting a mate. Males typically look at and smell female genitalia to initiate copulation, and females seek out a male partner at certain times during their ovarian cycles. Most of the mating is done with one high-ranking male, but females can have multiple partners. It just depends on the specific group of males. In order to secure mates, male groups guard certain territories from other male groups if that is where individual female home ranges are. (Eisenberg, 1973; Fedigan and Baxter, 1984; Strier, 2004)

Spider monkeys reach sexual maturity between 4 and 5 years old. Their gestation period lasts between 7 to 7.5 months, and weaning occurs between 1 and 2 years of age. The number of offspring per breeding season can vary, and they can breed at any point during the year. Typically, they only mate once every 2 to 4 years. (Eisenberg, 1973)

Spider monkey offspring are cared for by the female. The mother and her children live in a separate home range from the males. Offspring typically stay with the mother until two years old, when males find their own groups and females find their own territory. (Fedigan and Baxter, 1984)

  • Parental Investment
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • extended period of juvenile learning


There is some uncertainty about spider monkey lifespan in the wild, but it seems to range between 20 and 25 years. They live about 40 years in captivity. (Strier, 2004)


Spider monkeys are very social animals. Males live in large groups with some hierarchy. The males spend more time with each other than with females, so the hierarchy is necessary to prevent disagreements. Males also stay in the same group that they were born in, but females leave their groups and spend most of their lives on their own or with offspring. The home ranges of different groups overlap, and encounters between groups can be aggressive. In general, spider monkeys are most active in the morning and evening, and rest during the afternoon and night. There is some evidence that spider monkeys, specifically Ateles geoffroyi, use tools for body care. Spider monkeys also use their tails in order to get food that may be out of reach otherwise. There is evidence in Ateles fusciceps that their tail use is lateralized, meaning that they favor using their tail to one side over the other. (Fedigan and Baxter, 1984; Lindshield and Rodrigues, 2009; Nelson and Kendall, 2018; Strier, 2004)

Communication and Perception

Spider monkeys have a wide range of vocalizations that they use to communicate with one another. They have an alarm call that sounds like a dog bark to warn for predators, and other longer distance calls to communicate. To communicate with other members of their group, they have "chuckles." They also rely on touch, such as grooming one another, to create social bonds. Spider monkeys also have a stronger sense of smell than people usually believe. They can use smell to pick out ripe fruits. Research was done that demonstrated that even with smells meant to distract from the ripeness, spider monkeys were still able to detect which fruits were ripe and which were not. However, most of their perception of their environment still comes from sight. (Nevo, et al., 2015; Strier, 2004)

Food Habits

Spider monkeys are herbivores, so they eat predominantly leaves and fruits. They consume from plants that are abundant in their habitat, so there is not one kind of leaves or fruit that they eat. They do have some preferences, which leads them to move to different parts of their home ranges during different times of the year depending on what plants are most abundant in what area. This behavior has been studied in Ateles geoffroyi and Ateles chamek. (Scherbaum and Estrada, 2013)


Spider monkey's are mainly predated on by humans for their meat and body parts. Due to their large size, being off the ground, and forming subgroups, it is difficult for other animals to predate on them. However, there have been known instances of predation on spider monkeys by pumas (Puma concolor), jaguars(Panthera onca), crested eagles(Morphus guianensis), and harpy eagles(Harpia harpyja). Spider monkeys use a bark call to alert their groups to a predator's presence, and to tell the predator that they have been seen. Due to their low predation risk, a lot of their other possible predator avoidance behaviors haven't been observed. (Busia, et al., 2018; Strier, 2004)

  • Known Predators
    • Humans
    • Pumas
    • Jaguars
    • Crested Eagles
    • Harpy Eagles

Ecosystem Roles

Due to spider monkeys being herbivorous and having large ranges, they play a large role in seed dispersal in their habitats. This allows for plants to travel to different areas for growth, and for plant diversity to be maintained. When spider monkeys defecate, the seeds typically come out whole, which is important for the growth and spread of large seeded trees. They also eat fruit from a variety of different trees, which helps with the spread of tree diversity. A research study found that the trees and plants they consume from and disperse the most are Chrysochlamys membranacea, Pourouma minor, Pseudolmedia rigida, Tetragas-tris varians, and genus Ossaea. (Calle-Rendon, et al., 2016; Scherbaum and Estrada, 2013)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
  • creates habitat

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Spider monkeys are important to the cultures of the people who live in their habitat, such as in their artwork and stories. They are also a source of meat, and their body parts have been used for making clothing and accessories. (Strier, 2004)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Spider monkeys typically try to stay away from humans as much as possible, so there aren't many instances of negative interaction. Spider monkeys can carry diseases, but there isn't much evidence of transmittance to humans because of the low amount of interaction. (Strier, 2004)

Conservation Status

The populations of all spider monkey species are in decline, and range from vulnerable to critically endangered. They have been victims of habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction(roads, houses, etc), deforestation, and hunting. These events also trigger a stress response, which leads to decreased individual animal health and lower population viability. There is a lot of action being taken to try to stop the population decline, such as establishing nature reserves and putting protections in place, but there is a lack of funding and commitment so efforts are slow. (IUCN, 2022; Rimbach, et al., 2013; Strier, 2004)

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated


Bri Hinchliffe (author), Colorado State University, Audrey Bowman (editor), Colorado State University.



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

causes disease in humans

an animal which directly causes disease in humans. For example, diseases caused by infection of filarial nematodes (elephantiasis and river blindness).

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.


having more than one female as a mate at one time


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


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Nelson, E., G. Kendall. 2018. Goal-Directed Tail Use in Colombian Spider Monkeys (Ateles fusciceps rufiventris) Is Highly Lateralized. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 132/1: 40-47. Accessed February 04, 2022 at

Nevo, O., R. Garri, L. Salazar, S. Schulz, E. Heymann, M. Ayasse, M. Laska. 2015. "Chemical recognition of fruit ripeness in spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi)" (On-line). Scientific Reports. Accessed April 24, 2022 at

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