Capuchin monkeys eating the remains of a newborn monkey have been observed for the first time, a rare case of cannibalism among New World primates.
Researchers studying Panamanian Capuchins with a white face in Costa Rica witnessed a 10-day fall of a baby from a tree.
The mother tried to save the offspring, but soon died and she quickly abandoned the body.
Then a 2-year-old man approached and began biting the dead baby’s fingers.
Then the group’s 23-year-old alpha wife – the baby’s big aunt – arrived and began eating her lower limbs.
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The remains of a baby Capuchin monkey swallowed by other members of her group. Cannibalism is extremely rare among New World primates and has never been observed in Capuchins.
Cannibalism is sometimes perceived by animals during food shortages or dense populations as it provides access to high quality proteins, fats and other nutrients.
But it also carries a high risk of transmitting diseases and other defects.
Consumption of male partners by females during mating is widespread in arachnids.
Cannibalism is not unknown among other species of monkeys, usually as part of the infanticide of alpha males who want to establish a reproductive monopoly.
An alpha female and a minor eating the toes and feet of a dead baby. Capuchins are omnivorous, but there is usually a struggle to access the prey and the whole animal is consumed
In the wild, a pregnant chimpanzee can sometimes be isolated for weeks before and after birth to prevent the baby from being eaten alive by other members of the community.
But this is a rarity among New World monkeys: There are only eight cases recorded in just six species among the more than 100 found in America.
And it has never been seen among Capuchin monkeys, which are native to the rainforests of Central America.
“We’ve never seen anything like it before,” behavioral ecologist Catherine Jack, co-author of a new report in the journal Ecology and Evolution, told New Scientist.
Capuchins with white faces are omnivorous – they are known to dine with lizards, squirrels, birds and even baby coats – but usually eat only things they have killed.
“They don’t clean at all,” Jack said.
Capuchins usually bite the faces of their victims, “probably to avoid being bitten or to drown out the prey,” the authors write.
White-faced Capuchins are omnivorous – they eat dinner of lizards, squirrels, birds and even baby coats – but usually eat only things they have killed.
Usually there is a struggle for access to the prey and the whole animal is consumed.
In this case, as of April 2019, it is believed that an elderly man who was expelled after the baby fell has dealt a fatal blow.
But only the alpha female and the young man consume the baby – and leave the face, upper limbs and torso intact.
While the other members of the group expressed interest – sniffing, touching and threatening the corpse – no one tried to eat it.
“Given that this is the only observation of cannibalism recorded in more than 37 years of research on this population, we believe that this is a rare behavior in this species,” the authors write.
Researchers say further research is needed to fully understand the unusual behavior, but they note that female Capuchin monkeys are known to carry dead offspring for many hours.
In this case, the baby’s mother introduced herself, but made no attempt to take him away when he was unable to adhere to her.
As a first-time parent, researchers speculated that she may not have understood what to do.
Without his mother carrying the dead baby, the other monkeys faced an unusual situation.