The Monkeys of Panama


New World Monkeys
Preserving the forests of Panama is of utmost importance to the survival of the country’s monkeys. The New World monkeys of Panama are tree dwellers, inhabiting forested areas, some of which are protected and some that aren’t. The spider and the howler are the largest of Panama’s New World monkeys and the squirrel monkey, which does not resemble a squirrel though its name implies it, is the smallest. The diminutive tamarins may be mistaken for squirrel monkeys, darting through secondary forests at breakneck speed.
The Primate Refuge and Sanctuary of Panama protects the monkey species on a group of islands in Lake Gatun. The organization re-introduces rescued monkeys into the wild as well as educating the public about the importance of the cause. It is one of the world’s largest such sanctuaries and a location where visitors will have an opportunity to see a variety of monkey species all in one place during their travel to Panama though not exactly a rainforest in the middle of nowhere.

A prehensile tail allows these monkey species to steady themselves on branches or swing as the spider monkey does, freeing up their limbs to forage for fruit, leaves or insects. Lucky for visitors on Panama tours, most of the monkeys found here are diurnal, though this doesn’t necessarily mean they are easy to see during walks through the forest. The forests benefit from the monkeys’ habit of dropping or excreting seeds as they travel.

Troop size varies by species, and those found in Central America spend some time in subgroups or on their own. Monkey subspecies tend not to overlap one another geographically, so the subspecies visitors observe during their travel to Panama will be different from those found on the Amazon tours or further south.

A tip for travelers on Panama tours, the rules of zoo decorum apply to observing monkeys in the wild. Monkeys are wild animals, no matter how tame their cute faces and behavior may make them appear. They are meant to be observed, not fed, and from a safe distance. Monkeys are found in very out of the way places in Panama and right in the capital near the Panama Canal. Three of Southern Explorations’ five Panama tours visit one or more locations inhabited by New World monkey species, the eight-day Family Adventure and Panama Adventure trips and the eleven-day Panama Highlights trip. For a monkey-intensive excursion, we offer passengers a one-day tour extension to the Barro Colorado National Monument.

Capuchin Monkeys
The capuchin is one of the most prevalent of the monkey species found in Panama and perhaps the most intelligent. Though travelers are most likely to view capuchins in the trees during their Panama tours of rainforests and cloud forests, the species also spends some time on the ground to feed, giving humans a chance to witness more of its comings and goings than may be observed of the other arboreal monkey species. Capuchin monkeys subsist on a varied diet that in addition to standard new world monkey fare of fruits and insects, may include oysters, birds, eggs and small mammals, bringing them down to the edge of the forest that abuts farmland and the beach. Capuchins may roam in troops as large as thirty though usually less and can make quite a commotion.

Capuchins are found in many areas of Panama including some you wouldn’t expect, such as the virgin forests of Coiba National Park, thirty miles out to sea. For visitors to the capital during the travel to Panama, the most convenient places to see capuchins are in Lake Gatun at the Primate Refuge and Sanctuary, comprised of several islands, or at the Barro Colorado National Monument, a reserve overseen by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Further east, in Portobelo National Park along the Caribbean coast in Colon Province, capuchins inhabit the least accessible of the park’s forests. They are also found in La Amistad International Park and Darien National Park in the country’s interior at the country’s northern and southern ends. Visitors who travel to Isla Bastimentos may also catch a glimpse of some capuchins.

Howler Monkeys
Of the monkey species that visitors may observe on Panama tours, the howler is the largest and one of the most prevalent. The species subsists on a diet of mostly leaves that usually keeps it high in the more mature trees of the forest. Though the howler is better able to survive shrinking habitat than other New World monkey species, deforestation for human development poses a problem for howlers too. Miraculously, some howlers continue to inhabit the Azuero Peninsula where their habit has been reduced to the edges of farmland, and the Azuero howler is considered critically endangered.

If travelers catch a glimpse of the howlers, it will likely be while doing some Panama hiking through the cloud forests and rainforests where the species travels in small groups or groups or as many as thirty-five. At eleven pounds, the adult male howler is slightly heavier than the female and about twenty inches tall. Howlers are diurnal but aren’t very active during the day. Howlers do not practice monogamy. Females give birth about every two years but not during a particular season and are devoted mothers.
Howler monkeys galore are found in the tropical forests of Barro Colorado, protected as a national monument in conveniently located Lake Gatun. Here over a thousand howlers in many troops inhabit the island. Panama tours here are guided. Another nearby location where you are likely to encounter the species is the group of islands in Lake Gatun that comprise the Primate Refuge and Sanctuary. The monkeys here that have been rescued from captivity are being re-introduced to the wild. Howlers are also found in nearby 319,000-acre Chagres National Park and adjacent Sobernia National Park. In the western highlands, at the private forested Finca Lerida, most people come to see the abundance of bird species, but you will also find howler monkeys.

Though most people visiting Coiba National Park during their Panama tours come here for the marine wildlife, the virgin forests on the island itself are home to howler monkeys. Another marine national park, the Gulf of Chiriqui National Park also provides habitat to howler monkeys, including the easily accessible Isla Boca Brava. The best way to visit either park during your travel to Panama is with a guide. You’ll have the best luck viewing howlers during the dry season. Howlers are found in huge La Amistad International Park. Troops of howler monkeys inhabit some coastal areas of Colon Province. The southern region of Panama near Colombia, where far fewer visitors travel, is more howler monkey habitat. Chances are very good that visitors who travel to Panama for some hiking in Darien National Park will encounter at least the sound of howler monkeys.

Spider Monkeys
Spider monkeys are thin but tall, weighing about fourteen pounds and growing to over three feet tall, with arms longer than its legs and a tail longer than its body. Subspecies vary a bit in size. It is one of the most intelligent of the non-human primates and requires more space to roam than the smaller monkey species that inhabit Panama. One such region is La Amistad International Park that stretches across the border with Costa Rica. Living on mostly fruit and some young leaves, spider monkeys travel great distances in forests to forage, inhabiting a territory of over 2,000 acres. If you are fortunate enough to see spider monkeys during your Panama travel, most likely you will see them high in the canopy. Spider monkeys travel in troops of twenty to thirty, but usually seek food alone or in small groups. Female spider monkeys give birth every two to four years.

Hunting and the conversion of forest land to agricultural use have made the spider monkey a rarity in some parts of Panama where it once roamed. Though mostly deforested, the Azuero Peninsula is home to a very small population of spider monkeys, possibly a subspecies of the red spider monkey that is critically endangered. After being wiped out on Barro Colorado in Lake Gatun, spider monkeys have been re-introduced with some success, and the population is slowly growing. The species also inhabits the islands of the Primate Refuge and Sanctuary of Panama in Lake Gatun.

Spider monkeys are found in the sparsely populated Coto region in western Panama west of David on the border with Costa Rica and in eastern and central areas of Panama Province. Remote Darien Province near the border with Colombia gives the black-headed spider monkey its best home in Panama and a prime opportunity for humans to encounter a troop of them. Visitors on Panama tours should traverse the tropical splendor of the cloud forests and rainforests of Darien National Park with a guide.

Squirrel Monkeys
Squirrel monkeys eat a diet consisting mostly of insects though will dine on a varied diet ranging from fruit to small birds when available. The Central American squirrel monkey is active during the day, traveling through the trees, using its tail for balance. When food becomes scarce in the dry season, the species spends much of its day foraging. Squirrel monkeys travel in groups of up to seventy-five, but often half the number. They divide into small groups when foraging.

This species is slightly smaller than the capuchin, weighing just one to three pounds and growing to about a foot tall with a tail as long as or longer than its body. Usually moving too fast for visitors on Panama tours to get a snapshot, squirrel monkeys are very entertaining to watch for those fortunate to encounter them. In the bio-diverse canopy of the rainforest, squirrel monkeys may be able to elude humans but not a variety of other predators, including jaguars, raptors and snakes.