By Vern and Lori Gieger
A Howling Good Time
During our recent work creating a video designed for school children, we had the unique opportunity to interact with several exotic species. One of the most heart touching was a month and a half old Howler monkey, native to the southern part of Mexico. It was an awesome experience to be able to hold this adorable infant, but sad at the same time, knowing that poachers in all likelihood killed his mother to obtain him, as she would have not surrendered him without a fierce fight.
Wildlife trafficking is second only to drugs, with little or no consequences in comparison. The fate of this little one is uncertain at best; he probably will never be able to be returned to live in his natural habitat. Howler monkeys are in danger of extinction, and removing even one has grave impacts on the remaining population. Some scientists estimate the Howler Monkey could become extinct in our lifetime.
Howler monkeys are the loudest land animal, while their howl is not a piercing sound, it can travel three to four miles through the dense rainforest. They have a special voice box and a pouch in the throat that amplifies the sound, a bit like the horn on an old gramophone. Both sexes have a loud call but the male’s voice is much louder and deeper. The term "howler" is a bit of a misnomer since the male’s voice sounds more like a powerful roar; while the female’s sounds more like a pig’s grunt.
Howls are habitually used at the beginning and end of the day. They are the alarm clock of the jungle. Howler monkeys inhabit much of the Latin American rainforests; they are also the largest monkey, ranging between two to four feet tall and weighing from eight to twenty-two pounds, the males being significantly larger.
Despite the volume of their howl, it can be difficult to try to locate a troop of howler monkeys in the wild. They hang out in the treetops where younger, greener leaves are abundant. However, if you do find yourself in the rainforest and it seems that an unusually large amount of debris is falling from above or a fine spray (of urine) rains down on your head, you will know you are close!
Male howler monkeys use roars to defend their territory. Howls from one troop are answered by other males within earshot, thus checking out where their nearest competitors are. In this way, they protect the food in their territory. It’s an important job, since their diet is made up mostly of leaves, not a particularly nutritious food. Discovering young, nutritious leaves is a priority. Fruit and flowers are also prized so it’s crucial the troop stakes its claim on these resources when found. Howler Monkeys are totally arboreal, seldom leaving the treetops.
Vocal communication is an important part of their social behavior, particularly during breeding season, when every male howler thinks he is ‘Elvis.’ The babies cling to their mothers’ fur; as they get older they make permanent riding spots on their mothers’ backs. This continues for about a year. Male Howler monkeys become sexually mature at about five years of age, the females at three to four years. But often the young monkeys lack the social maturity to be allowed to mate for several more years.
Howlers have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years living in groups of approximately 18. The number of females is greater than the number of males. They are quite social and tranquil animals. Interestingly, when there is a fight over food, mates or territory, they typically do not scratch or bite but rather yell and slap, which is a great contrast to their behavior. In captivity, adult howler monkeys are notorious for being very aggressive and unpredictable.
Howler monkeys have prehensile tails that are strong enough to support their entire body weight, although they seldom do so. Not only do the tails increase mobility, but if the monkey falls out of a tree, the tail can latch onto a branch and completely stop the fall. Like all monkeys Howlers have their comical side, they seem to love to irritate jaguars and other animals from the safety of the canopy. They have been observed throwing sticks, etc. at them. The jaguar, no doubt, is hoping it will slip and fall to the ground.