What is a Spider Monkey?

Mary McMahon

A spider monkey is a New World monkey in the family Atelidae, found widely distributed across South America. These monkeys have long, spindly legs and lengthy tails along with slightly potbellied bodies, which remind some observers of spiders. They live exclusively in the rain forest, and are considered endangered due to habitat destruction. As a result, many zoos have established captive breeding programs in an effort to retain biodiversity and save the numerous individual species in the Ateles genus.

The rain forest provides the habitat for spider monkeys.
The rain forest provides the habitat for spider monkeys.

The average spider monkey ranges in length from 12-26 inches (35-66 centimeters), depending on the species and sex. The limbs and tail seem disproportionately long, and are used to move the monkey quickly and efficiently through the forest. Most never come down from the trees they live in, foraging for food and water in the rain forest canopy. Like other New World monkeys, spider monkeys lack opposable thumbs, although their prehensile tails are used like fifth hands. They have coarse hair in gray, brown, reddish, or black, depending on region and individual species.

Spider monkeys may be used in malaria research.
Spider monkeys may be used in malaria research.

The diet of a spider monkey includes fruits, nuts, flowers, and greens, and the monkeys sometimes must forage far afield for food. Because of the large habitat that these monkeys require, they are especially sensitive to destruction of tracts of rain forest. Many scientists consider spider monkeys to be an indicator species, judging the health of the rain forest by the health of the spider monkey populations. These monkeys are also used in some scientific research, especially malaria research.

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In the wild, a troupe of spider monkeys contains around 20 individuals. The monkeys will break up into smaller sub groups for daily foraging expeditions, and they also appear to have a complex culture. Primarily, females are in charge of the group. In captivity, the monkey band is often smaller, but usually contains at least five monkeys so that they can retain the rudiments of their social structure.

In some regions, captive spider monkeys are available as pets, especially in South America. Because of their endangered status, this practice is frowned upon by conservationists. Adult monkeys can also become quite strong and belligerent, and are not usually safe around children and teens.

Spider monkeys are found in tropical regions throughout South America.
Spider monkeys are found in tropical regions throughout South America.

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Discussion Comments


@dinoleash: When the spider monkeys start looking for food, the groups will split up in order to avoid fighting over whatever they find. Like the article stated, they eat many different varieties of berries and fruits but they will also feed on small reptiles, honey, nuts, leaves, spiders, and bird eggs.

Spider monkeys are actually very helpful in spreading seeds throughout the rain forests in South America. They must be cautious around crocodiles and jaguars, as they are considered their prey.


@dinoleash: Another reason that the spider monkey is called “spider monkey” is because they are often be seen with all four of their hands on separate tree branches, giving the appearance of a spider web. Spider monkeys are very social and usually gather in groups of two to three dozen monkeys. They can be quite noisy when communicating with one another. They use a series of barks, screeches, and other odd sounds.

At night, the spider monkeys break into smaller sleeping groups of 6 or less. The male spider monkeys will stay together throughout their whole lives where the female will leave her original group and move to another.


I am doing a research project on monkeys, which focuses specifically on spider monkeys. Does anyone have any more helpful spider monkey facts? The article was great!

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