Capuchin monkeys have been observed eating the remains of an infant for the first time, a rare occurrence of cannibalism among primates in the New World.
Researchers studying Panamanian white-faced Capuchins in Costa Rica witnessed a 10-day-old infant fall from a tree.
It is mother who tried to save offspring, but it died soon and she quickly left the body.
That was when a 2-year-old man approached and started nibbling at the dead child’s fingers.
Then the group’s 23-year-old alpha female – the infant’s great aunt – arrived and also began eating the lower extremities.
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The remains of an infant capuchin monkey that was devoured by other members of its group. Cannibalism is extremely rare among primates in the New World and has never been observed in Capuchins
Cannibalism is sometimes adopted by animals during periods of food scarcity or high population density as it provides access to high quality proteins, fats and other nutrients.
But it also has a high risk of disease transmission and other disadvantages.
Women’s consumption of male partners during mating is widespread in arachnids.
Cannibalism is also not unknown among other monkey species, neither usually as part of the infanticide of alpha males who want to establish a reproductive monopoly.
An alpha female and young man eating the fingers and legs of a dead infant. Capuchins are omnivorous, but there is typically a struggle for access to the prey, and the whole animal is consumed
In the wild, a pregnant chimpanzee can sometimes isolate for weeks before and after birth to prevent her baby from being eaten alive by other members of society.
But it is rare among New World monkeys: only eight cases of only six species have been recorded among the more than 100 found in America.
And it has never been observed among capuchin monkeys native to the rainforests of Central America.
‘We’ve never seen anything like it before,’ behavioral ecologist Katharine Jack, co-author of a new report in the journal Ecology and Evolution, told New Scientist.
White-faced capuchins are omnivorous – they are known to eat lizards, squirrels, birds and even baby coatis – but they usually eat only things they have killed themselves.
‘They do not escape at all,’ said Jack.
Typically, Capuchins bite the face of their victims, ‘possibly to avoid being bitten or to close the prey’, the authors wrote.
White-faced capuchins are omnivorous – eating lizards, squirrels, birds and even baby coatis – but they usually eat only things they have killed themselves
There is usually a struggle for access to the prey and the whole animal is devoured.
In this case, which dates from April 2019, an adult man seen chased after the infant’s fall is believed to have suffered the fatal blow.
But only the alpha female and the young man consumed the infant – and they left its face, upper limbs and torso intact.
While the other group members expressed interest – sniffing, touching and threatening the body – no one made an attempt to eat it.
‘Given that this is the only observation of cannibalism recorded in over 37 years of study of this population, we consider it a rare behavior in this species,’ the authors wrote.
The researchers say further research is needed to fully understand the unusual behavior, but they noted that female capuchin monkeys are known to carry offspring for many hours.
In this case, the baby’s mother presented herself but made no attempt to perform it when it was unable to cling to her.
As a first-time parent, researchers theorized, she may not have understood what to do.
Without his mother carrying the dead infant off, the other monkeys were presented with an unusual situation.