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Chapter 5 Foraging

Late on afternoon, while Lupé was foraging along the riverbank, she heard a commotion in the trees.  Looking up she saw Angleo and Max running around a large cluster of leaves piled up between some tree branches. It was big and round and had a small hole in it.  They tried to stick their hands into a small hole, but they could not do it.  Nearby an angry mother squirrel was chattering and scolding the monkeys to stay away.  The monkeys were responding with angry barks.  They wanted whatever was in the leaf cluster.


Max moved in closer and tried to put his hands into the leaves, but the squirrel screamed at him and jumped at him and bit and scratched his face.  Max jumped back, and small droplets of blood appeared on his nose.


Lupé noticed that Julio was sitting nearby, holding two baby squirrel pups.  He was holding one and eating the other.  Hamilton also had a little pup that he was eating.  It made Lupé’s mouth water and she ran over to sit near Julio, hoping he might let her have some.


All capuchin monkeys like meat.  They like lizards, small snakes, mice, lizards, squirrels, and birds.  They could catch baby little opossums to eat.  Lupé does not get to eat meat very often, she is really too small to catch anything bigger than a mouse or a lizard, but often Carmen or Julio will permit her to pick up dropped bits and pieces.  When she was very young, Julio even let her take a small piece of meat away from him.  Now that she was bigger, he does not let her do that anymore.


Lupé realized that the large clump of leaves was a squirrel nest and the monkeys were raiding it, pulling out the young babies to eat.  The monkeys knew that baby squirrels could be found in nests, so they often pulled them apart.  They also carefully check birds’ nests for eggs and baby birds.  If they see a hole in a tree, they know there might be a nest inside, so they carefully explore those as well.  One time Granny Bette found a mouse nest in the crown of a palm tree.



Lupé watched as several of the adult males and older kids try to raid the squirrel nest.   Angelo and Max approached the nest, scaring the mother squirrel away.  Bud tried to pounce on the mother squirrel, but she bit him, and she got away.  Angelo and Scarface already had scratches on their faces and hands.


Julio jumped down to the nest and thrust an arm into it.  He grabbed a squirrel pup by its tail and hurled it into the river.  Julio continued eating the pups he had and watched as the others wait for the squirrel pup to swim to the riverbank.  


The dazed pup started to swim towards the far side of the river back, but when it saw Teri, Bette, and Carmen waiting for it, the pup turned around and swam to the opposite side.  When the pup made it to the riverbank, Max, two juveniles, and a large basilisk lizard all jumped at it.  One juvenile tried to catch it but got bit and gave up.  Max grabbed it and bit it in the neck.  He then proceeded to eat it.


Other monkeys continued to approach and raid the nest, though no other pups were caught.


Lupé kept hoping Julio would drop a little meat, but he turned his back on her.  Disappointed, Lupé went back to foraging for fruit.


Lupé likes to eat many kinds of things. She knew that many animals had nests where they might find something to eat. Older monkeys like to eat bees and wasps.  Bee nests are filled with sweet honey and wasp nests are filled with tasty larvae.  Sometime the monkeys would raid bird's nests and get eggs or baby birds.   Termites made large nests of chewed of chewed up wood.  Sometimes birds would peck holes into them and use them for nests.  After they left, bats would live inside the termite nests.  The monkeys could find food there.


There are lots of good tasting fruits in the forest.  Lupé especially likes palmiche palm nuts.  There are so many palmiche palms in her home range that there are palm nuts all year round that are rich in fat, vitamins, and minerals.  Some of the nuts are hard to pull off, but often Lupé can usually find some that she can get.  They are mealy and not very sweet, but they are filling and easy to find.

Palmiche 600 dpi.jpg

Lupé also likes jobos and jocotes.  One of the most common trees on the living fences is jocote, but most of the jobos are in the forest.  Both produce tangy fruit that are juicy.  The bright red jocotes are easy to see and Lupé can quickly tell which ones will be ripe and ready to eat just by looking at them.  The jobos are bigger than jocotes and when they are ripe, turn yellow.  They are sweeter than the jocotes and just as juicy.  But the howler monkeys like them and will eat them before they are fully ripe.  The howlers often eat most of the jobos before the capuchins can get to them.  Lupé has a harder time telling when the jobos are fully ripe.  When she feeds on them, she gently squeezes the fruit to find out if it is soft.

Lupé also likes the nutty Inga pods.  The Inga trees make long green pods filled with bean-shaped seeds covered with thin, white fleshy fruit.  They are very sweet and taste like peanuts.  Lupé likes to open the pods and pop the seeds into her mouth.  She sucks they fleshy fruit off, spits out the seeds and then gets more.



Inga vera

Lupé’s most favorite fruit is the sweet, juicy mango.  Like bananas and plantains, mangos do not naturally grow in Costa Rica.  People brought them years ago and there are whole plantations of mangoes in Lupé’s home range.  Even though they have a huge seed, they have so much flesh that a single mango fills Lupé’s tummy.  The mangos ripen more quickly once they are cut, so Carmen and Red and Julio clip the stems and let the fruit fall to the ground.  In a day or two, they will forage on the ground for the cut fruit to see is they are soft and sweet.


The monkeys also clip avocados from the tree to force them to ripen.  When they are soft, the monkeys pull back the rind and eat the creamy fruit covering the seed.

When she was very little Lupé was too afraid to forage on the ground.  It still makes her nervous, but now she feels braver.  Cautiously checking all around her, Lupé moves to the lowest branches and then she will jump to the ground.  As she moves across the ground, she clings to grasses, plant shoots, and fallen branches with her prehensile tail.  She does not really need to hold on with her tail, but it makes her feel safer.


If she can find a ripe mango, she will take it back up into the tree to eat.  She’ll bite a small hole into eat and peel back just a bit of the outer skin.  Then she’ll dig into it with her hand, pulling out the sweet fruit and lick it off her fingers.  Mangos are messy fruit; when she’s done Lupé’s hands and face are usually yellow, stained with mango flesh. To clean up, she wipes her face on a tree branch, just like she’s using a napkin.

Lupé also like to eat insects.  The capuchins eat lots of insects every day.  They are rich in protein and they taste so good.  Sometimes they can catch big insects with fleshy parts that are easy to eat and digest, like leaf hoppers, cicadas, and spiders.  They eat caterpillars, but if they are hairy, Lupé will roll it on a tree branch to remove the hairs before she eats it.  


Mostly, though, the monkeys find very small insects to eat: little flies, gnats, small beetles, and crickets.  Because most of the insects are so small, the monkeys must eat a lot of them to get enough calories and protein.  This easy to do in the rainy season when there are lots of insects, and the capuchins can eat their fill.  But during the dry season it is harder.  There are fewer insects and much more dry leaf litter for them to hide in.  Sometimes, there are so few insects that Lupé's family will start eating more lizards or squirrels.

Sometimes Lupé's troop would go to the mangroves.  Some of the mangrove trees had long prop roots that held the trees high above the water.  Lupé would leap from root to root, playing with the other kids.  They played in the mud and splashed in the water.  When the water was gone, because the ocean tide went out, the monkeys would find little clams in the sand.  They would carry them up onto the tree root where they would sit and pound and roll the clams on the tree branches.  It took some time and quite a bit of skill.  But, if Lupé was patient, the clam would eventually open, and she could eat the meat. 


Max was big enough and brave enough to forage on the ground a lot.  He especially liked to pull the small sprouts out of the fallen coconuts so he could eat the young heart of palm.  He looked for coconuts that had one or two small leaves.  He would grasp the lowest part of the leaf and pull as hard as he could.  The slender shoot would slide out of the nut and he would eat the white, fleshy heart of palm.  Lupé tasted it: it tasted just like coconut meat.


She was much too small to be able to collect the coconut shoots and she was not strong enough to gnaw holes into small green coconuts to drink the green coconut water.  Several at the adult males knew how to do this and there was usually more water than they could drink.  If she was lucky, there would be some that Lupé could drink.  Sometimes squirrels would chew open the coconuts and the monkeys could chase them away and steal their food!


The forest also provided lots of other things to eat.  There are lots of different kinds of fruit, tasty seeds and nuts, delicate flowers, and sweet nectar.  Even some of the leaves, like those of the jobo and jocote, were good to eat. 

But some of the things in the forest were not good to eat.  Some of the leaves were very hard or stringy, making them very hard to digest.  Other leaves and some fruits were quite bitter and upset Lupé’s stomach.  Lupé’s mother had warned her about eating different kinds of seeds and leaves, they had poisons that could make Lupé sick or worse.  Lupé had spent much of her childhood learning about the good foods in the forest and which things to avoid.


She even learned about medicines contained in plant parts. The juices, oils, and sap of different plant parts sometimes relived itching.  Some plants contained antibiotics that prevented bacterial infections while others prevented fungal infections.  All of them felt good to apply. Lupé especially liked the juice of citrus.  Lupé learned to pound the fruit on tree branches and roll it up and down, squishing the fruit to release the juice.  Then, she would bite into the rind, opening it up so she could dig out the juice.  Using her hands, feet and sometimes even her tail, she applied the juice over her entire body.  It was so fun.


Lupé really liked fur rubbing.  It made her feel good and it was a fun thing to do with her family.  She liked to sit beside her mother and Tita to rub the pungent citrus juice into her fur.  Max and Peter usually joined them and even Julio and sometimes Granny Francis would join in.  All seven would huddle together in a squirming ball of monkeys, frantically pounding fruit, digging out the juice and rubbing it into their fur.  The strong citrus scent and excitement made them drool.  Spit and citrus juice would fly around, pulp stuck to their fur and when they finished their fur would be soaking wet.



Citrus fruit

Little Tita had to hang on especially tight.  Carmen would rub her own fur so vigorously using her hands, feet, and tail.  Carman never intentionally rubbed citrus juice into Tita’s fur, but as Tita clung to Carmen’s back, she would get soaked just the same.   The scent was so strong that Tita would rub her back up against Lupé, absorbing the citrus juice into her fur, and then she would rub the juices throughout her fur.  Some of the monkeys liked to use the oils in the citrus rinds, but mostly they used the juice.


One day, Max began rubbing with a large heart-shaped leaf.  Lupé ran over and sniffed his fur.  As she inhaled, she caught a scent of licorice.  She remembered that when she was very young and still riding on her mother’s back, Carmen had rubbed this into her fur. 


Looking down, she saw a plant with many heart shaped leaves.  It had several long yellow flowers shaped like candles.  She went down and pulled off a leaf.  She crunched the leaf in her hand, crushing it and then she bit into it.  She held it to her nose and inhaled deeply.  It smelled so strongly of licorice, she had to start rubbing it over her body.  Max jumped down and collected more leaves and then came to sit beside Lupé as he rubbed the juices from the leaves into his fur.


During the rainy season, when there were many more biting and stinging insects and when it was so easy for a small cut to becoming infected, the capuchins would use different plants to rub over their bodies.  They never applied anything directly to wounds or bites, but rather bathed in these juices and oils to prevent problems. 


Anis, Piper marginatum


Terciopelo, Sloanea terniflora


Barba de viejo, Clematis dioica

They had learned about several plants that were good to rub with. They liked the strong scented oil and juice of citrus fruit and the pungent licorice scented Piper  (Piper marginatum) leaves.  The juices they squeezed out of the stems of the Clematis (Celamtis dioica) vine made them feel tingly all over and the tiny hairs covering the purple seed pods from the Terciopelo (Sloanea terniflora) tree also caused a tingling sensation.


Lupé had seen some of the males in Stumpy’s troop rubbing with the leaves and sap of the madera negra (Gliricidia sepium) tree, but her family never used it, so she did not either.  She had heard that some monkeys used the long black seed pods of the stinking toe tree (Hymenaea courbaril) but she had never seen anyone use it, so she never did.


Lupé’s forest provided so much for them.  It gave them all the vegetation to meet their nutritional needs.  It gave home and food to the insects and small animals that the monkeys like to eat.  It even gave them medicine.


Baker, Mary E.   personal observations 1991-2018

1998. Fur Rubbing as Evidence for Medicinal Plant Use by Capuchin Monkeys (Cebus capucinus) Ecological, Social, and Cognitive Aspects of The Behavior. Thesis (Ph.D.) University of California, Riverside.

​See also

Fragaszy DM, Visalberghi E, Linda M Fedigan (eds.) 2004. The Complete Capuchin: The Biology of The Genus Cebus.

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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