Black spider monkey (Ateles paniscus)

Also known as: Guiana spider monkey, red-faced black spider monkey, red-faced spider monkey
French: Atèle Noir
Spanish: Mono Araña Negro
GenusAteles (1)
SizeMale head-body length: 52 - 58 cm (2)
Female head-body length: 49 - 62 cm (2)
Male tail length: 72 - 85 cm (2)
Female tail length: 64 - 93 cm (2)
Male weight: 5.5 - 9.2 kg (2)
Female weight: 6.5 - 11 kg (2)

The black spider monkey is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

The largest of the spider monkeys, the black spider monkey (Ateles paniscus) is also distinguished by its long, glossy black hair, which gives the body a robust, rather ape-like appearance (4) (5). Like other spider monkeys, it is a large but slender monkey with a pot belly, long, spider-like limbs, and a long, prehensile tail, which is used like a fifth limb. The underside of the tail tip is hairless and bears wrinkles and ridges which aid in gripping, while hook-like hands and an extra mobile shoulder joint help the black spider monkey to swing easily beneath branches (2) (4) (6) (7) (8). The head is fairly small, with a prominent muzzle, and the virtually bare face is red or pink in colour (2) (4) (5) (6). Infants have a darker face, which gradually lightens with age (4). In general, male and female spider monkeys can be difficult to distinguish, particularly as the female can be mistaken for a male due to an unusually elongated clitoris (6) (7) (8).

The black spider monkey was formerly classified as a single species with the similar Peruvian spider monkey (Ateles chamek), but the two are now considered distinct (1) (4) (5). The vocalisations of the black spider monkey include whinnying calls, dog-like barks, and a loud, far-carrying ‘whoop’ (4) (5) (6).

The black spider monkey is found in eastern South America, in northeastern Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana, north of the Amazon River and east of the Rios Negro and Branco. It may also occur in the eastern tip of Venezuela, but its presence there is unconfirmed (1) (4) (5) (6).

Like all spider monkeys, the black spider monkey inhabits undisturbed primary rainforest, rarely using degraded forest or edge habitats, and preferring to move in the middle to upper levels of the forest (1) (2) (4) (5) (9).

The black spider monkey feeds on a wide variety of fruits, supplementing the diet with young leaves, flowers, buds, bark, honey, and occasionally small insects (1) (4) (5) (9). Like other spider monkeys, it is believed to be an important seed disperser (1) (4) (9). Spider monkeys are agile primates, capable of moving swiftly through the trees by swinging, climbing, running along branches, or even walking bipedally, and can even hang suspended by the tail, leaving both hands free for feeding (2) (4) (6) (7) (8).

Black spider monkeys live in a ‘fission-fusion’ society, in which groups of up to 20 to 30 individuals regularly divide into smaller, temporary subgroups, the only persistent relationship being between the female and offspring (2) (4) (6) (8) (9). Larger subgroups may form when fruit is more abundant, and the monkeys may travel large distances each day in search of food (2) (9). The female black spider monkey usually gives birth to a single young, after a gestation period of around 7.5 months, with births peaking between November and February in some areas. Spider monkeys have one of the slowest reproductive rates of all New World monkeys, the young remaining with the female for up to four or five years, and the female only giving birth about once every three to four years (1) (4) (5). On reaching maturity, young females may leave to join another group (2) (8). Lifespan is thought to be at least 33 years (4).

Although still relatively widespread and abundant, the black spider monkey is under threat from overhunting, which is occurring even within protected areas, as well as by habitat loss through deforestation (1) (4) (5) (10). Like all spider monkeys, the black spider monkey is particularly vulnerable to these threats due to its slow reproductive rate, and its need for large areas of undisturbed forest that contain a sufficient number and variety of fruiting trees (1) (2) (4) (6) (9).

The black spider monkey occurs in a number of protected areas across its range, some of which are quite large (1). It also receives some protection from international trade under its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (3), although illegal hunting continues in some areas (1). The species is legally protected in French Guiana, although the laws are sometimes poorly enforced (10). Rainforest habitats are increasingly in need of urgent and adequate protection, and, as an important seed disperser, the survival of the black spider monkey will be important in maintaining the overall health of these valuable ecosystems.

Find out more about the conservation of the black spider monkey and other primates:

Authenticated (13/12/09) by Matthew Richardson, primatologist and author.

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2009)
  2. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. CITES (October, 2009)
  4. Primate Info Net (October, 2009)
  5. Emmons, L.H. (1997) Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A Field Guide. Second Edition. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  6. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  7. Ankel-Simons, F. (1999) Primate Anatomy: An Introduction. Academic Press, San Diego, California.
  8. Fleagle, J.G. (1999) Primate Adaptation and Evolution. Second Edition. Academic Press, New York.
  9. van Roosmalen, M.G.M. (1980) Habitat Preferences, Diet, Feeding Strategy and Social Organisation of the Black Spider Monkey (Ateles Paniscus) in Suriname. Ph.D. Thesis, Agricultural University of Wageningen, Holland.
  10. de Thoisy, B., Renoux, F. and Julliot, C. (2005) Hunting in northern French Guiana and its impact on primate communities. Oryx, 39(2): 149 - 157.