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Monkeys: Hoot'n & Holler'n in the Treetops
by Richard Garrigues
Few sights or sounds in Costa Rican forests provoke such a startled reaction in first-time visitors to the country as do the loud bellowing of male howler monkeys. Upon hearing the deep, barking calls, most people—once they have recovered somewhat from the initial surprise—think that the sound could only have come from a beast as large and ferocious as a jaguar and are amazed to discover that a medium-sized monkey is the source of so much noise.
Despite all their frightening growling, howler monkeys (or congos as they are known locally) are fairly placid creatures. Tracking the howls to their origin can actually lead to disappointment in those who expect to find a troop of monkeys actively scampering about the trees, only to encounter a dozen or so black furry masses huddled or lounging in repose among the leafy boughs.
Their inactivity is due to a strictly vegetarian diet. Although the leaves, fruits and flowers that howlers feed on are an abundant and easily gathered resource, the energy provided by this diet is relatively low and so these creatures conserve energy whenever possible.
Should you be fortunate enough to come across a troop of howler monkeys on the move, watch the way they use their prehensile tails to great advantage. This unique adaptation for living in trees is a trait shared by all of the larger New World monkeys (capuchins, spider, wooly, and howler monkeys) and not found at all among Old World primates.
The prehensile tail is able to wrap around branches and act essentially as a fifth limb for holding on while freeing the monkey's forelimbs for other activities such a feeding and grooming.
If you look closely (binocular will probably be necessary) at baby howlers riding on their mothers backs, you will even notice how a youngster wraps its tail around the base of mom's tail to ensure a secure hold while moving about in the treetops.
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