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Spiders and howlers: Yucatán’s charming species of New World monkeys

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Young spider monkeys can be cute and have tons of personality. Sadly, this makes them an attractive target for poachers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Other than human beings, Yucatán is home to two species of primates, these being howler and spider monkeys.

But if you want to see them in the wild you will have to head to the south of the Peninsula. Some of the best locations include Punta Laguna in Quintana Roo and Calakmul national park in Campeche.

Before you go, learn more about these New World monkeys, which are among the five families of primates in the tropical regions of Mexico, Central and South America.

Spider monkeys 

Spider monkeys get their name because they sometimes resemble a giant spider when hanging upside down by the tail, with long arms and legs extended. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Weighing in at nine kilograms, the Yucatán spider monkey is one of the largest species of New World monkeys. Other than the Yucatán Peninsula, these monkeys can be found in Belize and northern Guatemala. They are known for being extremely agile and can move great distances by effortlessly jumping from branch to branch.

When not foraging for food, spider monkeys can usually be found lounging about on the forest’s tallest branches. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

They have extremely long arms and a prehensile tail which can easily support their own weight. Their long and slender bodies are covered with coarse black and tan fur, with markings around their eyes and chin. 

Spider monkeys are very social and live in groups ranging in size from anywhere between 10 and 100 members, though they usually average between 20 and 40. Groups are dominated by females, who also are in charge of planning foraging groups. 

Spider monkeys have long slender fingers that closely resemble our own. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Yucatán spider monkeys feed mostly on fruit but have been known to also eat the occasional insect or egg. The average lifespan is of about 25 years, but in captivity, they can live up well into their late thirties. Females produce offspring once every couple of years. Babies are born completely black and will cling to their mother’s back for the first few years of life.

Howler monkeys

Howler monkeys are not aggressive towards humans, but they are still wild animals, so best keep your distance. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The howler monkey, or saguaro as they are known in Yucatán, is a species famous for its loud howls, which can travel up to five kilometers through the dense rain forest. This species can be found across the forest of the Yucatán Peninsula, as well as Chiapas, Tabasco, and much of Central America. 

When observing these mighty but gentle monkeys, it is hard to not feel a special kinship with them. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Howler monkeys are even larger than spider monkeys and males can weigh up to 12 kilograms. They are nearly a meter long, excluding the tail which usually stretches past 60 centimeters in adult males. Both sexes have black coarse hair and a  prehensile tail.

Howler monkeys are diurnal, meaning that they only come out during the day, and spend their night nested in the high tops of trees. They usually awake just before sunrise and begin to call each other with powerful howls which give them their name. Not knowing the origin of the sound, tourists to the area often erroneously assume that what they are hearing is the roaring of jaguars. 

Despite their size and weight, howler monkeys are still extremely agile. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Most groups of howler monkeys are made up of six to 12 individuals, with one to three males and several more females. Contrary to popular belief, fighting among group members is not frequent and usually short in duration. They eat mainly top canopy leaves, together with fruit and nuts. 

Conservation

Both howler and spider monkeys are considered threatened species, as their habitats in the dense forest are under constant encroachment by human activity. 

Both the Mexican black howler monkey and the Yucatán spider monkey are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Small spider monkeys and capuchins (which are not even endemic to Mexico) are often irresponsibly paraded about at resorts, or even shopping malls in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, so that tourists can take photos with them, for a fee of course. Although this practice is technically illegal, it is still fairly commonplace. It goes without saying that this sort of activity should not be encouraged, but I will say it anyway  —  just don’t!

Nope, this is not ok! Photo: Tripadvisor

While neither spider nor howler monkeys are aggressive, they may give you a good scare if you are foolish enough to feed them, so refrain from doing so.

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