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Thursday, March 10, 2011

blond capuchins use tools to gather termites

Critically endangered capuchins make tools to gather termites

Less than 200 blond capuchins (Cebus falvius) survive in the highly-fragmented habitat of Brazil's Atlantic Forest. But this tiny group of monkeys, only rediscovered in 2006, is surprising scientists with its adept tool-using abilities. Displaying similar behavior to that which made the chimpanzees of Gombe famous worldwide, the blond capuchins modify sticks to gather termites from trees; however, according to the study published in Biology Letters the blond capuchins use two techniques never witnessed before: twisting the stick when inside the termite nest and tapping the nest before inserting the stick.

"Tapping the walls of the nest and rotating the stick have not been reported previously for chimpanzees or any other non-human primates. They indicate effective problem solving and effective deployment of sensitive manual actions," the study's authors write.

The technique of rotating the stick and tapping the nest add to the monkey's success according to researchers, who tested the monkeys' techniques for themselves.

"It really worked. The way they do it really enhanced their catch," lead author Antonio Souto of the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Brazil, told LiveScience. "I think they can do better than we did; they have more experience."

In addition, this is the first time capuchin monkeys have been observed using tools above the ground, since they raid termite nests on tree trunks.

First described by German naturalist George Marcgrave in 1664, the blond capuchin was formally named in 1774. But the blond capuchin disappeared for centuries, only to be re-discovered in 2006. The remaining populations is threatened by habitat loss, as well as hunting for food and as pets. Researchers estimate that 180 survive.

Souto A, Bione CBC, Bastos M, Bezerra BM, Fragaszy D, Schiel N (2011) Critically endangered blonde capuchins fish for termites and use new techniques to accomplish the task. Biology Letters. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0034.

We report the spontaneous modification and use of sticks to fish for termites, above the ground, in wild blonde capuchins (Cebus flavius). These critically endangered Neotropical primates inhabit remnants of the Atlantic Forest. They used two previously undescribed techniques to enhance their termite capture success: nest tapping and stick rotation. The current ecologically based explanation for tool use in wild capuchins (i.e. terrestrial habits and bipedalism) must be viewed cautiously. Instead, remarkable manual skills linked to a varied diet seem important in promoting tool use in different contexts. The repertoire of tool-using techniques employed by wild capuchins has been expanded, highlighting the behavioural versatility in this genus.

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