Spider monkey birth documented in the wild for first time: Exclusive

Written by on February 9, 2024

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(NEW YORK) — Conservationists said they have obtained the first-ever video of a baby spider monkey birth in the wild as the critically endangered species struggles to repopulate amid continued habitat loss.

A baby brown-headed spider monkey named Anku was born on Jan. 22 in the Chocó, a tropical forest region in northwest Ecuador, Felipe Alfonso-Cortes and Nathalia Fuentes, co-founders of conservation group Proyecto Washu told ABC News.

The first documentation of a wild spider monkey birth proved to be a dramatic one. After Anku was born, he was hanging in one of the tallest tree canopies about 50 feet in the air by his umbilical cord, terrifying the researchers below, who thought he might fall to the ground, Alfonso-Cortes said.

“But fortunately it didn’t happen, he said. “Unbelievable, in the end.”

The witnessing of spider monkey births are so rare because they typically happen at night, and you have to know where and when to look, Alfonso-Cortes said. It was the first time for researchers who have been studying the group for more than 10 years.

Proud mother Arawi has been showing Anku off to all of the researchers who monitor the group of spider monkeys, Fuentes said.

Brown-headed spider monkeys are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, and its population continue to dwindle. Its range extends from western Panama to the western border of Colombia and northwest Ecuador, according to the IUCN.

Spider monkeys are competing with humans for space, Greg Vicino, vice president of wildlife care for the San Diego Zoo, told ABC News. The main threat the species faces is habitat loss. Spider monkeys are boreal primates, meaning they depend on trees to survive. Deforestation for cattle ranching or large plantations that grow crops like palm oil are destroying the species, Alfonso-Cortes said.

“They do not come down to the ground,” Vicino said. “That’s where the jaguars are.”

Brown-headed spider monkeys are one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world, Alfonso-Cortes said. Another reason why it is difficult for the species to maintain its population is because they live relatively long — about 15 to 20 years. The birthing process is a long one as well. Gestation periods last more than seven months, and since spider monkeys nurse for up to four years. It will often take at least that long for the next pregnancy to occur, Alfonso-Cortes said.

Anku’s birth was a bit of a surprise for the researchers because it had been eight years since Arawi, who researchers estimate to be “really old” at 25, had last given birth, Alfonso-Cortes said. Another female spider monkey named Anna gave birth on Saturday, but she has been much less outgoing during her postpartum period than Arawi has, Fuentes said.

“The unlikely birth of Anku is a landmark achievement for the brown-headed spider monkey, highlighting the power of community-based conservation,” JG Collomb, CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Network, a partner of Proyecto Washu, said in a statement to ABC News. “Local organizations like Proyecto Washu are nothing less than essential to tackling some of the toughest conservation issues of the day — from climate change to habitat restoration.”

Spider monkeys are crucial to the local ecosystem because as they eat fruit, they help to disperse and spread the seeds away from the original tree, Vicino said.

It is impossible to determine how many brown-headed spider monkeys are still living in the wild because some parts of the Ecuadorian Chocó are inaccessible, Alfonso-Cortes said. There are currently 22 individuals being monitored within the Proyecto Washu program.

The main initiative in Proyecto Washu’s strategy of protecting the species is reducing the threats, Alfonso-Cortes said.

Poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are also major threats the spider monkeys face. And while hunting them is illegal for most Ecuadorians, indigenous communities are permitted to hunt spider monkeys because the meat is part of their diet, Alfonso-Cortes said.

Conservation efforts that are culturally sensitive will be necessary going forward, Vicino said.

“How do we develop programs that allow people to live in these places and still have sustainable use of the resources that are there without depleting them?” Vicino asked.

In August, the San Diego Zoo took in three daysold spider monkey babies that were seized after they were illegally brought into the U.S.

The babies, found along the U.S. southern border in a duffle bag wearing diapers, are now about 5 months old and are thriving at the zoo, Vicino said.

“Our goal is to make sure that their future is absolutely as bright as possible, despite having such a such a difficult beginning,” he said.

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